17 Mar Up and @ ‘em – a symbol of the digital age
On the 5th of March, Ray Tomlinson passed away. He’s not a household name – at least not in most houses – but his work has shaped the way we communicate every day. Widely considered to be the key father of email, he’s also specifically the man who introduced the @ symbol to the internet communications world. On one platform or another, we’ve been @-ing one another ever since.
But the symbol’s history stretches back a fair way further than Tomlinson’s email introduction in 1971. In fact, it’s been around for so long that’s explicit origins remain shrouded in mystery.
Merchants and monks
Many people stand behind the theory that it’s an abbreviation of the Latin ‘ad’ (meaning at, toward, by or about) developed by mediaeval monks wary of ink depletion and space on the page.
There’s also a train of thought that suggests that it was a shorthand symbol for ‘each at’ used by merchants describing the unit cost of items for sale – when you examine the symbol closely, you can see the way in which it could represent an ‘a’ encased in an ‘e’. The first documented usage of the symbol backs up this possibility with Smithsonian Magazine reporting that in a 1536 letter, Florentine merchant Francesco Lapi ‘used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae’.
A tale of a tail
So there are all kinds of curly tales around this curly symbol. It’s a peculiar symbol in that there’s no universal word for it – each language’s translation is quite different. English is a little dull in this regard – there’s nothing particularly thrilling about ‘the at symbol’ as a descriptor – but a lot of languages get rather wildly creative. With emphasis on the wild!
It seems as though many people have decided that the encircling tail of the ‘a’ in the symbol resembles a variety of other tails and animals in general. For a little international flavour, why not dabble in calling it ‘apenstaartje’ (Dutch for ‘little monkey tail’), ‘παπάκι’ (or ‘papaki’ – Greek for ‘duckling’), ‘malwen’ (Welsh for ‘snail’) or ‘小老鼠 (pronounced ‘xiǎo lǎoshǔ’ – Taiwanese for little mouse)?
@ you, @ me
Today, we see it daily. Every single email address in existence uses an @ to bridge between the username and the website it’s attached to. If you’re an internet user, chances are that your name (or some derivation of it) is attached to anything from your workplace to your university to your webmail platform of choice.
And, of course, we can’t forget the new surge of use via social media. If you’re a Twitter user, it’s constantly staring you in the face – while Instagram and Facebook still use it as a means of locating users to tag in posts – even if the symbol itself doesn’t end up showing up in the post. Where it once existed to connect people to a website, it’s now become synonymous with reaching out to a person, whatever the platform.
So thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for your gift of connectivity.