The origins of the common yet underrated @ symbol
By Lisa Mullen
The @ symbol has become an integral part of our daily lives — from sending email to keeping up with the latest political news on Twitter. While it may be thought of as a modern symbol, it has a long history spanning back hundreds of years.
Spoken aloud as “at,” it’s used in accounting to mean “at a rate of” and is widely used in email addresses as well as social media.
The character has many names around the world. The Dutch call it apenstaart (monkey’s tail) while the Finns have two cat-oriented names for the symbol; kissanhanta (cat’s tail) as well as miuku-mauku (miaow-meow) and the Germans feel like it looks like a spider monkey so they call it a klammeraffe.
One of the earliest uses of the @ symbol can be found in the Vatican Apostolic Library. In 1345, while writing a synopsis about the creation of the world in a Greek chronicle, Constantine Manasses used it in place of a capital “A” in the word amen. It is unknown why he used that as a substitution for the letter.
The next known documentation of the character was found by the Italian scholar Giorgio Stabile. He discovered a letter dated May 1536, written by a Florentine merchant named Francesco Lapi where he used the symbol to represent the Greek amphora, a unit for measuring the amount of liquid in a vessel. In the letter, @ followed by the number of units of wine was used to show how much wine was contained in the large clay jars that were on the shipment.
Portuguese and Spanish merchants then took up the use of the symbol and it became known as arroba. It symbolized a unit of weight roughly equal to 25 lbs.
It suffered in relative obscurity until 1971 when Ray Tomlinson invented what would become modern-day email. Tomlinson was a computer scientist working on a private government contract to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPANET which was the precursor to our present-day internet.
Tomlinson wanted a way to communicate quickly with other scientists who were also
working on ARPANET without having to physically go to them. At that time, each computer worked in isolation, not connected to any other computer.
Tomlinson created a program that would send the email by having a username followed by the @ symbol then the location of that computer which is now known as a domain name so it looked like tomlinson@bbn-tenaxa — the very first email address. Tomlinson chose the symbol to indicate the user was “at” another host rather than being local.
From email to social media, the @ symbol is essential to our collective communications today.
It’s used in computer programming languages from Perl to Python. It’s a part of our social media handles on Twitter and Instagram. It’s especially useful on Twitter functioning as an attention-getter to let people know you’re talking about them when you include @username, your message goes right to that recipient’s mailbox or you can check out a company just by typing in @companyname.
There’s no doubt it has become indispensable to our everyday lives through the power of electronic communications.