Friday, May 5, 2017

Wh@t's Th@t? It's a C@at's T@ail

(This article appeared in the April/May Lexpert under the above title)         
                             Wh@’s Th@? In Finnish It’s a C@’s Tail


                                                       Howard Richler

A couple of years ago I contemplated making a home exchange with a couple in Berlin and as a result I had a telephone conversation with someone called Uwe Mueller in which we talked about our respective home towns and the previous home exchanges we had experienced. Like many Germans, Mr. Mueller’s English was quite proficient but we did hit a snag at one juncture. I asked him for his email address to which he replied, “It’s” I didn’t know if Mr Mueller had just sneezed or was  swearing at me so I asked him to repeat what he said at not surprisingly it was  the same - ””   After a pause of several seconds he checked with someone near him and told me “apparently in North America you call it ‘at’.”

Now while klammeraffe is not as long as freundschaftsbezeigungen (“demonstrations of friendship”) or the more diminutive volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) it is still quite a mouthful compared to “at.”  

Incidentally, klammeraffe means “spider monkey” and if you find it peculiar that Germans compare the @ sign with an animal, be aware that the rather pedestrian  universal use of “at” designation in the English-speaking world represents the exception, not the rule. For example, Germany’s neighbour Netherlands designates the symbol as api short for apestaart (monkey’s tail) whereas the Italians call it chiocciolina and the sometimes used French petit escargot both that mean “little snail.” Danes and Swedes call it snabel or snabela (elephant’s trunk) and Finns call it miau, “cat tail.” Keeping up this zoocentric tradition, Czechs see the symbol as a rolled-up fish filet, Greeks as a duckling, Hungarians and Thais as a worm, Ukranians and Russians as a dog and the Chinese as a mouse. Some countries prefer to envisage the symbol as tasty foods like Norwegians who designate it kanel-bolle (spiral-shaped-cinnamon cake)  and Israelis who call it shtrudel, and Austrians strudel (pastry).

Spaniards seemingly have a different conception. Here it is called arroba, an ancient unit of weight of approximately 25 pounds. This word derives from Arabic word rub (pronounced roob) which refers to “a quarter part.” Apparently, in the 19th century, Spanish ports began emulating the commercial measures of the English. But as the Spaniards were unaware of the meaning given by the British to the @ symbol, where it only designated how much a unit cost (e.g., 10@ £5) meant 10 units of a product at the price of 5 pounds),they supposed it was a unit of weight because it was used as such already in Spain. In Portuguese- speaking countries the same word is used and is also based on a unit of weight, slightly higher than the Spanish one.

Before computer networks were interconnected, an email could only be used to send messages to various users of the same computer.  But once computers began to talk to each other over networks things became more complex.  A means was required needed to indicate to whom the electronic mail should go that the electronic posties understood - just like the postal system, we needed a way to indicate an address. This problem was solved in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson a Boston researcher at ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. (Tomlinson died this past March at age 74). He selected the symbol @ to represent a separator between an email name and an email location. So while the “at” or “commercial at” designation may not be as evocative as the many animalistic ones that are used, it is an eminently logical one. Incidentally, the @ symbol was not included on the keyboard of the earliest typewriters but it made its debut in one 1889 model and the commercially successful models from the Underwood No. 5 starting in 1900.

It is commonly believed that Tomlinson chose this as this quintessential email symbol precisely because it was not used that often although it sat on every keyboard. So although the “at” designation is somewhat boring compared to the lurid metaphorical ones used in many countries, its name does have history on its side. In any case, “commercial at” is the official name for the symbol in the ASCII character set.

While Tomlinson helped popularize the @ symbol, in reality it has enjoyed a long history. It was first used  in the seventh century where it was a way of writing with one stroke the word ad which means “at” or “to” in Latin. Along its path, it has enjoyed other senses. For example, Venetian traders used it to signify “amphora,” a terracotta vessel that was a symbol of measurement.  But it always kept its meaning of “at” and was often used as an accounting and commercial abbreviation meaning “at a rate of.” For example, the accounting record 10@£15 would designate ten units of at the price of 15 pounds each unit.

Most likely inspired by the name for the & symbol – ampersand, the designation ampersat and asperand have been suggested as names for the @ symbol, but neither one has inspired much support.

Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in April 2016