I’m off to Europe for a few weeks after Easter. Most of my time will be spent poking around in archives and buying coffee for colleagues and picking their brains on a number of topics. I’m also wedging in some social calls - including a weekend in Warsaw, which I’m very excited about.
One of the few things I still remember from my Polish-learning days was that the @ ‘at symbol’ was known as małpa, which means ‘monkey.’ Since then I’ve always been impressed by how creative the speakers of Polish were compared to the relatively unimaginative English.
The origin of the @ is not entirely clear. It was used in Medieval versions of the Bible to save precious parchment space, and appeared in Norman French in the grocers’ ‘at’ sense of 2 apples @ $1 each. This is where it got its even less appealing English name ‘commercial at.’ It first popped up on a typewriter in 1900 at a good thing it was, given how useful it’s been for the interwebs. Indeed, the addition of the @ symbol to Morse Code in 2004 was the only change since WW1.
English hasn’t just lagged behind the Polish in the naming of the ‘at’ sign. Languages all over the world have done a much more creative job of naming it; there’s a big list at Wikipedia but I’ll just share some of my favourites. In Bosnian it’s known as ‘crazy a’ (ludo a), while in Basque it’s ‘wrapped a’ (a bildua). I generally have a fondness for the animal names it’s been given, which include ‘worm’ (kukac) in Hungarian, ‘duckling’ (papaki / παπάκι) in Greek and ‘puppy’ (shnik / շնիկ) in Armenian. The Swedes refer to it as an ‘elephant trunk a’ (snabel-a) but also use another common naming theme, food, and call it a ‘cinnamon roll’ (kanelbulle). The Czechs also go with the food theme and refer to it as ‘rollmops’ (zavináč). I also like Kazakh, which has two great names; the official is ‘moon’s ear’ ( айқұлақ) and the unofficial is ‘dog’s head’ (ит басы).
Do you speak a language with a cool name for @?