What do you call the @ sign?

In English, the @ sign is officially called “commercial at” because of its use in accounting. The sign means “at the rate of”. For example, “6 widgets @ $2″ means 6 widgets at the rate of $2. Today this sign is an emblem of the Web and is used in every e-mail address.
There are several theories of the origins of the @ sign.

  1. Giorgio Stabile, an Italian scholar, claimed that the @ symbol was used to denote an amphora: a terracota jar used to transport grain, oil and wine. Stabile discovered a letter from a Florentine merchant written in 1536 where the @ sign is used to replace the word “amphora”.
  2. According to American scientist Berthold Ullman, the sign was used by medieval monks to abbreviate Latin word “ad” (at, by, toward) when used next to numerical units.
  3. In Spanish, French and Portuguese, the @ symbol represented a weight      measure (approximately 15kg) and is called arroba (or arobase in French). The word originates from the Mozarabic word for quarter.          

In 1971 Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of e-mail, used sign @ to separate two parts of the e-mail address: username and domain. Tomlinson was looking for a symbol which could not be confused with the letters used in a domain- or user name. The fact that the @ symbol is called “at” in English made this choice even more logical. This way, the address used by Tomlinson – tomlinson@bbn-tenexa – means that user tomlinson is at the bbn-tenexa domain. Lastly, the symbol was conveniently already present on computer keyboards because of its previous use in commerce.   

The strange form of the sign has led to different associations and names in different languages. You can find some examples below:

  • EN: “at”, “commercial at”
    rarely: “strudel”
  • BG: “кльомба” [klyomba] EN nothing else
    “маймунско ‘а'” [maymunsko a] EN monkey ‘a’
  • CS: “zavináč” [zavinach] EN roll mops – pickled herring fillets, rolled around slices of onion or cabbage
  • DA: “snabel – a” EN an ‘a’ with a (elephant’s) trunk
  • DE: “at”
  • EL: “παπάκι” [papaki] EN little duck
  • ES: “arroba” – the symbol used to represent a mass measure (from Mozarab word “quarter”)
  • ET: “at”
  • FR: “arrobase” see ES
  • HU: “kukac” EN worm
  • IT: “chiocciola” EN snail
  • LT: “eta”
  • LV: “at” or “et”
  • NL: “at” or “apenstaartje” EN little ape-tail
  • PL: “malpa” EN monkey
  • PT: “arroba” see ES
  • RO: ” a rond” EN round a
  • SK: see CS
  • SL: “afna” EN monkey
  • SV: see DA
  • NO: “krøllalfa” EN curly alfa
  • HR: most often “at”, inform. “manki” – local pronunciation of EN word monkey. NB! Croatian word “majmun” (EN monkey) is not used to denote the sign @.
  •  RU: “собака” [sobaka] EN dog
  • UK: “равлык” [ravlik] EN snail  
     “пэсык” [pesik] EN little dog
     rarely “мавпочка” [mavpochka] EN little monkey

About TermCoord

The Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Schuman Building on Place de l'Europe, Luxembourg
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2 Responses to What do you call the @ sign?

  1. termcoord says:

    Dear Anastasia,
    In Finnish, it was originally called taksamerkki (“fee sign”) or yksikköhinnan merkki (“unit price sign”), but these names are long obsolete and now rarely understood. Nowadays, it is officially ät-merkki, according to the national standardization institute SFS; frequently also spelled “at-merkki”. Other names include kissanhäntä, (“cat’s tail”) and miukumauku (“miaow-meow”).

  2. Hi Anastasia,
    In Sweden we normally use “at” or the one you suggest; “snabel-a”. I would say that the English “at” is more commonly used.

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