by Laurie Israel, Esq.
This week, I started getting very curious about where the @ symbol comes from and what it means. This symbol is used in all email addresses and in other internet uses. For instance, when responding to another twitterer in a “public” tweet, you might put the sign @ before their twitter name. When your tweet is posted, everyone following you can see it, and the person you are directing your tweet to may get a nice glow of recognition.
No one knows where the @ symbol came from, but probably comes from an abbreviation or ligature of “ad” which means “at, towards, by, about” in Latin. Monks (entrusted with hand copying documents before the invention of the printing press) probably used this ligature as a time-saver.
Another theory of the origin of @ is that it was an abbreviation for the word “amphora,” which was a unit of measurement in 1500s Italy based on the amount held in a large terra cotta jar. These jars were used to ship grain, spices, and wine. Maybe a wine trader somehow associated the symbol used by the Monks for “at” with the first syllable of the measurement unit and liked the way it looked.
The symbol with its new meaning of “at the price of,” migrated to northern Europe and eventually onto typewriter keyboards. The @ symbol was one of a select few symbols included in ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) in 1963, which established the way letters and symbols would be translated into digital computer language.
The @ sign first became used in email addresses in 1971, when a computer engineer, Ray Tomlinson (b. 1941) was working on a communication network called ARPANET that would allow scientists and researchers to share each other’s computers. This led into an improvement by his team that allowed email (already existing within a single computer) to be able be sent over the internet to other computers. Tomlinson just looked at his keyboard, saw the sign that meant “at”, and history was made. The @ symbol has now become an ubiquitous icon in technology, business, and on the internet. It is now coming into the popular and fashion arena.
Interestingly, in a non-computer application, @ has been used to create gender-neutral versions of nouns in the Spanish and Portuguese languages. For instance, “amigos” is plural for “friends”, but is really a “masculine” noun in Spanish. “Amig@s” could refer to a mixed gender group of friends, while retaining “amigos” for a bunch of men, and “amigas” for a bunch of women. The @ character is perhaps used for this because it looks like it contains both an “o” and an “a”. Some attack this @ usage on the ground that it degrades the language or is a form of cultural imperialism.
So, my amig@s, I hope you have enjoyed this little romp into the history and use of this important typographical symbol.
Copyright ©2009 Laurie Israel.
Laurie Israel is founder of Israel, Van Kooy & Days, LLC, a law firm located in Brookline, Massachusetts. She combines a family law practice with estate planning, tax, mediation and collaborative law. Laurie is currently on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation and the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council. Her writings include articles on mediation to stay married (marital mediation), collaborative practice, marriage, divorce, and pre- and post-nuptial agreements. She is a frequent presenter at professional conferences.