English words for @

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Jun 27 16:02:47 UTC 2000

At 11:43 AM -0400 6/27/00, Paul McFedries wrote:
>I know I'm competing with the "clitoris" thread on this one, but I've heard
>various English words used for the @ symbol, including the following:
>Does anybody know of any others? I tried searching the archives, but
>received the following error:
>The requested method POST is not allowed for the URL
>Thanks a bunch.
Here's Michael Quinion's posting on the subject;sorry for the formating.
(Note the alleged popularity of "whirlpool" in this and the other
summaries.)  The main Linguist List summary on the topic can be found in
the archives at the following two references:

LINGUIST List:  Vol-7-968. Tue Jul 2 1996. ISSN: 1068-4875. Lines:  1387
Subject: 7.968, Sum: The @ symbol

LINGUIST List:  Vol-7-1177. Tue Aug 20 1996. ISSN: 1068-4875. Lines:  176
Sum: The @ sign: addendum

Quinion's World Wide Words column, 4/27/00:

                                      WHERE IT'S AT
                             Names for a common symbol

                            The @ symbol has been a central part of the
Internet and its forerunners ever since it was chosen to be a
                            separator in e-mail addresses by Ray Tomlinson
in 1972. From puzzled comments which surface from
                            time to time in various newsgroups, it appears
the biggest problem for many Net users is deciding what to
                            call it. This is perhaps unsurprising, as
outside the narrow limits of bookkeeping, invoicing and related
                            areas few people use it regularly. Even fewer
ever have to find a name for it, so it is just noted mentally as
                            something like "that letter a with the curly
line round it".

                            It use in business actually goes back to late
medieval times. It was originally a contraction for the Latin
                            word ad, meaning "to, toward, at" and was used
in accounts or invoices to introduce the price of
                            something ("3 yds of lace for my lady @ 1/4d a
yard"). In cursive writing, the upright stroke of the 'd'
                            curved over to the left and extended around the
'a'; eventually the lower part fused with the 'a' to form one
                            symbol. Even after Latin ceased to be commonly
understood, the symbol remained in use with the
                            equivalent English sense of at. Because
business employed it, it was put on typewriter keyboards from
                            about 1880 onwards, though it is very
noticeable that the designers of several of the early machines didn't
                            think it important enough to include it
(neither the Sholes keyboard of 1873 nor the early Caligraph one
                            had it, giving preference to the ampersand
instead), and was carried over to the standard computer character
                            sets of EBCDIC and ASCII in the sixties. From
there, it has spread out across the networked world,
                            perforce even into language groups such as
Arabic, Tamil or Japanese which do not use the Roman

                            A discussion on the LINGUIST discussion list
about names for @ in various languages produced an
                            enormous response, from which most of the facts
which follow are drawn. Some have just transliterated
                            the English name 'at' or 'commercial at' into
the local language. What is interesting is that nearly all the
                            languages cited have developed colloquial names
for it which have food or animal references.

                            In German, it is frequently called Klammeraffe,
'spider monkey' (you can imagine the monkey's tail),
                            though this word also has a figurative sense
very similar to that of the English 'leech' ("He grips like a
                            leech"). Danish has grisehale, 'pig's tail' (as
does Norwegian), but more commonly calls it snabel a, 'a
                            (with an) elephant's trunk', as does Swedish,
where it is the name recommended by the Swedish Language
                            Board. Dutch has apestaart or apestaartje,
'(little) monkey's tail' (the 'je' is a diminutive); this turns up
                            in Friesian as apesturtsje and in Swedish and
Finnish in the form apinanhanta. Finnish also has
                            kissanhäntä, 'cat's tail' and, most
wonderfully, miukumauku, 'the miaow sign'. In Hungarian it is kukac,
                            'worm; maggot', in Russian 'little dog', in
Serbian majmun, 'monkey', with a similar term in Bulgarian.
                            Both Spanish and Portuguese have arroba, which
derives from a unit of weight. In Thai, the name
                            transliterates as 'the wiggling worm-like
character'. Czechs often call it zavinàc which is a rolled-up
                            herring or rollmop; the most-used Hebrew term
is strudel, from the famous Viennese rolled-up apple
                            sweet. Another common Swedish name is
kanelbulle, 'cinnamon bun', which is rolled up in a similar way.

                            The most curious usage, because it seems to
have spread furthest from its origins, whatever they are, is
                            snail. The French have called it escargot for a
long time (though more formal terms are arobase or a
                            commercial), but the term is also common in
Italian (chiocciola), and has recently appeared in Hebrew
                            (shablul), Korean (dalphaengi) and Esperanto

                            In English the name of the sign seems to be
most commonly given as at or, more fully, commercial at,
                            which is the official name given to it in the
international standard character sets. Other names include
                            whirlpool (from its use in the joke computer
language INTERCAL) and fetch (from FORTH), but these
                            are much less common. A couple of the
international names have come over into English: snail is fairly
                            frequently used; more surprisingly, so is
snabel from Danish.

                            Even so, as far as English is concerned at is
likely to remain the standard name for the symbol. But there
                            is evidence that the sign itself is moving out
from its Internet heartland to printed publications. Recently
                            the British newspaper, the Guardian, began to
advertise a bookselling service by post, whose title (not
                            e-mail address) is "Books at The Guardian". Do I
detect a trend?

                            At least we shall have no problem finding a
name for the symbol.

                              Beeching, Wilfred A Century of the Typewriter
British Typewriter Museum Publishing, Bournemouth,
                            England, 1990
                              Chung, Karen S Linguist List, number 7.968, 2
July 1996. Available from

                              Hafner, Katie & Lyon, Matthew Where Wizards
Stay Up Late: the Origins of the Internet Simon &
                            Schuster, 1996
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