The Origin of the @ sign

If you are like me you spend copious amounts of time wondering about the world around you. Nothing is too trivial. One day I decided to try and find out who created the @ sign. Here are pieces of what I found.

“A commercial at is the symbol @; also called an at symbol, an at sign, or just at, and sometimes mistakenly called an ampersand (& is the ampersand). It is a cursive form of ā, or à, a term of debated origin. It is assigned to Unicode code point U+0040. Its official ANSI/CCITT name, commercial at, comes from its use in invoices, as in, “7 widgets @ £2 ea. = £14″. Other names include: about; acosta; ampersat or asperand (compare ampersand); amphora; ape; apothrope; arobase; atgry; atmark; cabbage; cat; cinnabun or cinnamon bun; commercial symbol; cyclone; each; mercantile symbol; rose; schnable; scroll or scroll-a; snail; strudel; these; vortex; whirlpool; chisignuh; whishi-whishi; yurming; or whorl.

History

The @ sign may have evolved from the Norman French "à"

Enlarge

The @ sign may have evolved from the Norman French “à“

@ appears to be the cursive form of ā, an abbreviation of an unknown word beginning with a. In medieval European manuscripts, abbreviations were generally indicated by drawing a line over or through the letters, as in the common IX for Jesus Christ (see Christogram), or # from lb for libra ‘pound’. In the typeface of the Gutenberg Bible, ā stands for either an or am within words. However, it is not known which particular word gave rise to modern @.

A commonly accepted theory is that the symbol is derived from the Latin preposition ad, which means about with numerals. However, no document showing this usage has been presented.

A similar idea is that @ is the abbreviation of the Greek preposition ana (ανά), which means ‘at the rate of’ when used with numerals, exactly its modern commercial usage.

A more recent idea has been proposed by Giorgio Stabile, a professor of history in Rome. He claims to have traced the symbol back to the Italian Renaissance in a Venetian mercantile document signed by Francesco Lapi on May 4, 1536. The document talks about commerces with Pizarro and in particular the price of an @ of wine in Peru, where <@> stood for amphora (Italian anfora; Spanish and Portuguese arroba). The word arroba still means both the @ symbol and a unit of weight (see below). Under this view, the symbol was used to represent one amphora, which was a unit of weight or volume based upon the capacity of the standard terracotta jar, and came into use with the modern meaning “at the rate of” in northern Europe.

However, @ could be the abbreviation of any word beginning in a, and more than one such symbol was likely in use, but there is no continuous record between any of the possibilities and the modern symbol.

I encourage you to read the entire piece where you can find out what it is called in other languages. For example:

  • In Bulgarian it is called кльомба (“klyomba”, means nothing else) or маймунско а (“monkey A”).
  • In Basque it is called a bildua (“rounded a”)
  • In Dutch it is called apenstaartje (“little monkeytail“).
  • In Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and Brazil it denotes a pre-metric unit of weight. It variates regionally being about 25 pounds, 11,502 kg, in most parts. The weight and the symbol are called arroba. (In Brazil, cattle is still priced by the arroba — now rounded to 15 kg). It was also used as units of volume for wine and oil. The arroba is also called the “a comercial” (the ‘commercial a’)
  • The French name is arobas or a commercial, and sometimes escargot (“snail“). Other names include queue de singe (monkey-tail) and a dans le rond (a in the circle).
  • In Modern Hebrew it is colloquially known as strudel (שטרודל). The normative term, invented by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, is kruhit (כרוכית), which is a Hebrew word for strudel.
  • In Italian it is chiocciola (“snail“), sometimes at or ad (pronounced more often /É›t/, and rarely /at/, instead of /æt/).
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5 Comments

  1. Jack's Shack June 18, 2006 at 7:00 am

    PT,

    I am glad that you agree.

    SI,

    I agree.

    Irina,

    Thanks, that is interesting.

    Sarah,

    I think so too.

  2. ~ Sarah ~ June 17, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    fascinating.

    symbols, signs and typography are really interesting.

  3. Irina Tsukerman June 16, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    And in Russian it’s called “sobaka” (dog).

  4. StepIma June 16, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    cabbage? cinnabun? strudel? I think whoever wrote this article may have been hungry…

  5. PsychoToddler June 16, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    I have never wondered about it for a second, but it is interesting.

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