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The History of a Symbol That Has No Translation: @

Throughout history, the @ sign has been used for many purposes, but its use was never so universal before its application in information technology. If in English it is known as the “at sign,” how is it referred to in other languages?

The at sign was a unit of measurement widely used among traders in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth century and represented a quarter of a hundredweight, equivalent to a weight of between 11.5 and 13 kg, depending on the region in which it was used, and comes from the term ar-rub, which in Arabic means, “one quarter.”

Despite changes to the term, the Spanish dictionary accounts for its origin by indicating that the adverbial phrase “por arrobas,” or “by the @” (the at sign is called “arroba” in Spanish) means abundantly, more than enough, or excessively. Its use in linking products with unit prices (in many countries it’s still called the commercial at) could explain its inclusion on typewriter keyboards in the United States in the late nineteenth century, which were later inherited by the computer.

On June 21, 1971, Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in history using the at sign to separate a domain name from a user name, thus incorporating its continued use into email addresses.

While since the mid-90s it has been used with the same frequency as stamps or mailboxes years earlier, the social network Twitter has opened a new chapter in the history of the at sign since it chose to use the symbol to indicate that the letters following it represent the username of an account holder on the site.

In Spanish and Portuguese, the at sign is referred to using a derivative of its historical name, “arroba,” but this is not so in other languages. In Italian it is referred to as “snail,” as well as in Korean (dalphaengi) and  Esperanto (heliko). However, in the universal language it is also called “volvita A,” which means “wrapped A.” While it is known as “shalbul” (also snail) in Hebrew, it also goes by “strudel,” both in that language and Yiddish. You need only look at this characteristic apple dessert from Central Europe to recognize the similarity. In this sense, some Spaniards call it “ensaimada,” another typical spiral-shaped pastry.

However, the animal kingdom is the most mentioned when referring to the at sign: it is known as “elephant’s trunk” or “pig’s tail” in Danish; “cat’s tail” in Finnish; “little mouse” in Mandarin; “worm” in Hungarian and, among many examples, “little duck” in the land of the Parthenon. Some other curious names include “marinated herring” in Czech, as well as “curly alpha”; the Russians call it “rose,” and the Serbs, “crazy A.” But the ape is the most chosen animal to refer the at sign around the world, as in German, Frisian, Dutch and Romanian, among others, it is called “monkey’s tail.”

The peculiar semantic path followed by this symbol is interesting, primarily because it is a symbol that has no translation.