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A rose by any other name… curly alpha, cinnamon bun, pretzel, alpha hose, elephant’s trunk ‘a’, elephant’s ear

A rose by any other name… curly alpha, cinnamon bun, pretzel, alpha hose, elephant’s trunk ‘a’, elephant’s ear

Before the e-mail revolution, few people were familiar with the @ symbol. Today, it is rather more ubiquitous, but speakers of different languages don’t always agree on what to call it.

Published 7/7/2016

Swedes often use the English at sign, or just at, or a charming nickname such as cinnamon bun. The Swedish-language Wikipedia article about the cinnamon bun even begins with a disambiguation link: “This article is about the pastry. For the symbol with the same name, see.” However, the Joint Group for Swedish Computer Terminology recommends the more traditional snabel-a, which translates literally as elephant’s trunk ‘a’. The advantage of this is that it makes things clear when spelling out an e-mail address, for example.

A long history with French roots

For many years, most researchers agreed that the symbol was a ligature – in other words, a contraction – of the letters a and d in the Latin word ad (at, on), but this turned out to be incorrect. We now know that symbols similar to @ have been used as abbreviations for many words in many languages. An initial letter of a word was often used with a line through it to signify the full word. Today, we are fairly certain that the @ symbol originates from the French à in pricing information, in the same way that we use the word ‘at’, e.g. 3 apples at 20p each – known as a ‘commercial at’.

In Sweden, there is evidence that the @ symbol was used in this way as early as the 1670s. See, for example, this cutting from town court proceedings in Arboga dated 1674:


pic.jpg
... Brewed into drink @ 3 barrels…

E-mail brings @ to the fore

The modern reintroduction of the symbol can no doubt be attributed to the American software programmer Ray Tomlinson, who started using @ in e-mail addresses in 1971 to separate names from domains. This is, of course, the most common use of the symbol today, but it is starting to be used more generally to mean at, even in contexts other than e-mail addresses. It is being used increasingly when directing a comment at someone, @Eric, or when explaining where someone is, Sarah @HighStreet.

Alternative uses

@ is a versatile symbol, and has alternative uses in various other areas:

  • It is used as a symbol for ready, end in Morse code.
  • Historically, @ has been used in both Spanish and Portuguese to represent arroba, a unit of weight that was originally based on what a donkey or a mule could carry (just over 11 kg in Spain, and just under 15 kg in Portugal). It is still used by cork traders in Portugal and livestock dealers in Argentina.
  • In Spanish, the symbol is used informally to mean o and a simultaneously, as a gender-inclusive ending when referring to a mixed group, as it represents both the masculine word ending -o and the feminine -a.
  • In English, particularly in technical literature, @ is used to describe the conditions under which data is valid or a measurement has been made.
  • In the Koalib language of Sudan, @ is used as a letter in Arabic loanwords.

Elephant’s trunk ‘a’ and other cute names

The traditional Swedish typographical name snabel-a translates as elephant’s trunk ‘a’, but this is no longer the most commonly used name in Sweden. Personally I’m fond of it, and I like the way it is clear and avoids confusion when spelling out e-mail addresses.

It’s not only here in Sweden that we have come up with imaginative and inspiring names for the @ symbol. All over the world, people have let their imaginations run wild, and the sheer variety of nicknames in other languages is so broad that you can’t help but smile at some of them:

Armenian 

 շնիկ (shnik – puppy)

Bosnian

 ludo a (crazy ‘a’)

Finnish

 miukumauku (meow)

Greek 

 παπάκι (papaki – duckling)

Hebrew

 שטרודל (strudel)

Dutch

 apenstaartje (little monkey tail)

Italian

 chiocciola (snail)

Kazakh

 айқұлақ (ajkulak – moon’s ear)

Norwegian

 krøllalfa (curly alpha) or alfakrøll (alpha twirl)

Russian

 собака (sobaka, dog)

Taiwanese Mandarin

 小老鼠 (xiao laoshu – little mouse)

Czech and Slovak

 zavináč (rollmops)

German

 Klammeraffe (cling monkey)

Hungarian

 kukac (worm, maggot)

Belarusian

 сьлімак (ślimak – helix, snail).

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