The @ symbol is a part of our online lives at this point. Whether it’s in an Instagram or Twitter handle, an email address, or a quick text you’re sending, there’s no denying its usefulness as a tool in our language and culture. It seems near-universal at this point, and it is, to an extent, but not in the sense that you may expect.
Depending on where you are in the world, the @ symbol may not only have a different name but a different meaning. It’s also been around far longer than you may think, and the modern usage isn’t as far deviated from the past as you’d expect.
WHAT DOES THE @ SYMBOL MEAN ONLINE?
Before we dive deeper into the history and its various uses, let’s go over what the @ symbol means online. Since that’s where many of us see and use it regularly, it’s a useful common ground to base our ideas of the symbol upon.
To start, pretty much anyone on the internet will recognize the @ symbol from their email address. You may not use your email often, but you need one to sign up for any sort of online subscription or mailing list, and many social media sites, as well as others that look for a confirmation of identity, will often have you use an email address to confirm you are who you say you are.
Speaking of social media, many young people today will mainly recognize the @ symbol from the tagging system on social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
On the former two sites, it appears in the name when tagging the person you want to mention and connect to your post. In these contexts, it almost becomes a part of the name itself, even though every account has it at the start of their actual name. It has a similar function on Facebook, as typing @ is how you indicate that you’re about to write the name of someone you want to tag, although it doesn’t include the symbol in your final comment or post.
In both of these contexts, the meaning is literal in the English language, specifically as shorthand for the word “at.” So, for instance, [email protected] is “johndoe *at [the domain]* email.com”. In turn, @johndoe would be referring to the user *at [the subdomain]* “johndoe”. It’s simple, sure, but that’s part of what’s made it so widely useful.
HISTORY OF THE @ SYMBOL
How did this modern utility come to be, though? Where, exactly, did the @ symbol come from? Well, it may have first gained real popularity in the 1970s, as we’ll explain in a bit, but the path to where it is today started way further back. To be specific, one of the first recorded usages of @ can be traced back as far as 1345 in a Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle by Constantinos Manasses.
Moving closer to how most use it today, linguistic scholars have noted the French letter “à”, which was used to mean “at” or “at the value of,” would occasionally be written as @, as it would be a way to include the accent mark without lifting the pen off the page.
Other than denotations of value, though, this symbol largely went unconsidered until 1971, when Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of the modern electronic mail system, decided to use the @ symbol as a signal to computers utilising it. Specifically, the symbol would tell the computer the inbox it was directing a message to was located at a certain online domain. When spoken, then, someone would read “[email protected]” as “john doe at email.com.”
The @ symbol is a part of our online lives at this point. Whether it’s in an Instagram or Twitter handle, an email address, or a quick text you’re sending, there’s no denying its usefulness as a tool in our language and culture.
WHAT DO DIFFERENT COUNTRIES CALL THE @ SYMBOL?
Considering its meaning in the online context, we imagine the English speakers amongst you refer to @ as “the ‘at’ symbol”. You may be surprised, however, to find that people in non-English-speaking countries refer to it in completely different (and often interesting) ways.
If you ask someone in Greece, for instance, they’d call it a παπάκι, which means “duckling.” The welsh call it a malwen, which is their word for “snail.” The Dutch went for an animal-based name as well, referring to it as apenstaart, which means “monkey’s tail.”
Go to Taiwan and you’ll notice something similar; there, it’s referred to as 小老鼠 (xiǎo lǎoshǔ), which is their term for a “little mouse.” The Danish term is equally cute, being “snabela”, meaning “elephant’s trunk.” It’s the Kazakh language, however, that has the most fascinating name for it; they call it the айқұлақ, or “moon’s ear.”
That doesn’t mean it has a cute and quirky name everywhere, though. If you go to Lithuania, any Arabic-speaking country, Iran, or Pakistan, their words for it all more or less mean “at”. Nepal has a similar meaning, although it specifically means “at the rate of” for them. So, if John Doe were in Nepal, he’d say his email like “John Doe at the rate of email.com” in Nepali.
HOW IS THE @ SYMBOL USED IN OTHER CULTURES AND LANGUAGES?
While many of those names are quite different from one another, one could still be talking about the symbol in the same context regardless of the language you’re using to refer to it. In certain cases, though, the symbol itself means something entirely different from what we’ve understood as in the online age.
In Spain, for instance, it’s still used to describe a unit of weight, even all those years after the 1536 letter that made us aware of the symbol’s history. The weight unit, called the arroba, is considered to be roughly 11.34 kilograms (or 25 pounds.) So, if you wanted to say something was the equivalent of 68 kilograms, you could say it was 6 @, or 150 pounds.
It’s also found a place as a gender neutralizer in the contemporary Spanish language. Whereas -o at the end of a word would indicate masculinity, and an a-ending would signal femininity, -@ is used amongst younger generations to indicate that the group or inanimate concept/thing being discussed is gender-neutral.
If you find yourself in Malaysia, you can also use @ as an informal way of writing the word “atau”, which is their equivalent of the word “or.” It’s also found new meaning within texting terminology in Portugal, where texting an @ during a romantic conversation is often used to mean “french kiss.”
Symbols have a key place in our language, and the @ symbol is one of a few, right up there with the ampersand (&), that finds its way into our daily written vocabulary one way or the other. We might be tagging someone on Instagram, sending an email, referring to a gender-neutral group in Spain, or sending romantic messages in Portugal; whatever we’re up to, the @ symbol finds its way into our language and lives.