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A worm-like, pickled pig’s tail of the @ tale

A worm-like, pickled pig’s tail of the @ tale

In 1972 Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message (the great, great granddaddy of our emails) in which the @ symbol was used to indicate the location of the recipient. Why @? Well, because he needed something that wouldn’t appear in anyone’s name, to avoid confusion (as well it represented the word ‘at’, which was an additional bonus, I presume).

Today, where would we be without @? (Despite it gradually disappearing from online view in an attempt to stop email address harvesting.) It seems perfect for the job – I don’t think ‘*’ or ‘#’ or ‘&’ would have been quite the same. But this is far from its first appearance in the everyday lexicon. In fact, before it even appeared on typewriter keyboards in the 1880s – and on standard QWERTY ones in the 1940s – the humble @ had a rich and varied history.

Linguists are divided on its actual origins. Some say in the sixth or seventh centuries Latin scribes adapted the symbol from the Latin word ad, meaning at, to or toward. The ‘d’ being curved back over the ‘a’. Sounds plausible. Others, though, believe it was developed from the word amphora (meaning jar), which was a standard-sized terracotta vessel used by merchants to carry wine and grain. The upper-case ‘A’ was embellished and led to its contemporary meaning of ‘at the price of’ … hmm, also quite plausible.

Whatever its origins, not everyone has as boring a name for it as we do. While in the English language @ is generally referred to as the ‘at sign’, others are far more creative.

Afrikaners call it ‘aapstert’, meaning ‘monkey’s tail’. The Dutch also call it ‘apestaart’ (monkey’s tail), ‘apestaartje’, (little monkey’s tail) or ‘slingeraap’ (swinging monkey). Germans, too, like the monkey theme with their ‘affenschwanz’ (monkey’s tail) or ‘klammeraffe’ (hanging monkey). Poles have ‘malpa’ (monkey) but also use ‘ucho s’wini’ meaning ‘pig’s ear’. Norwegians seem to agree on the porcine look using ‘grisehale’, (pig’s tail). Danes, too, like ‘grisehale’ (pig’s tail) but also turn to ‘snabel-a’ (elephant’s trunk).

The Greeks call it ‘papaki’, meaning ‘little duck’, while in Hebrew it’s ‘shablul’ or ‘shablool’ (both meaning snail). The Italians and French also have a snail thing going with ‘chiocciola’ and ‘petit escargot’, respectively.

In Mandarin Chinese it’s called ‘xiao lao-shu’ (little mouse). Bosnians, Serbs and Croats refer to it as the ‘Crazy I’. Czech’s call it the ‘pickled herring’ (kinda like that one!), while Russians plump for ‘little dog’ – no, I can’t quite see it myself.

After hearing all that, couldn’t we come up with something better than the ‘at sign’. It’s bland.

How about a ‘tuatara’s claw’? Or maybe a ‘weta’s leg’? Perhaps even a ‘pavlova ring’.

Whatever we could come up with would pale in comparison with the Thais’ words. There is no official word for @ in the Thai language, but it is often called ‘ai tua yiukyiu’.

Any ideas? … a hearty slap on the back to anyone who came up with ‘the wiggling worm-like character’.

Perhaps the ‘at sign’ isn’t so bad after all.


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