A Little *@#& History
“Language is the armory of the human mind and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817
One of the simple joys of my life as a timeless communicator is my 1937 Royal portable typewriter (Model O).
On the one hand, it’s not the typical device you’d expect the former global head of digital communications and social media for Ford Motor Company to have.
On the other hand, the typewriter is instrumental in how I think about communicating. In brief, it has slowed me down. When I type on it, I do so with great deliberation.
Every key stroke is permanent.
Every line finds its natural end with the sound of the bell.
Every piece of paper finds its place, line by line, as the roller spins and clicks.
Using the typewriter is a cathartic experience for me.
And yet, I as I attempted to include my email address in a letter, I was befuddled. I searched in vain across the set of glass-topped, chrome-encircled black keys. I couldn't find it.
Where was the @ symbol?
I found the pound sign (#), the ampersand (&) and the even the asterisk (*); the dollar sign ($) was of course present, as was percent (%). There was even a key for 1/4 and 1/2.
But there was no at sign (@).
I had to admit defeat and simply type “AT” between my name and URL.
Another thought bubble surfaced as well: all of the other symbols have names: asterisk, ampersand, and the ample alternatives for the pound sign: hash, number, octothorpe (probably my favorite!), grid, crunch, diamond, sharp, mesh, crosshatch…
It really made me curious about the history of @.
A History of Obscurity
In searching around, I was able to find some fascinating histories of some of the signs and symbols we commonly use.
Lapham’s Quarterly has an essay (“A Star Is Born”) on the history of the asterisk. In writing, it goes back to Aristarchus of Samothrace, who used an asterisk symbol when editing Homer in the second century BC.
The polynymous pound sign has a fascinating history. It traces its origins to the symbol ℔, an abbreviation for the Latin libra pondo, or “pound weight.” This is why we see it written as lbs. when we’re referring to weight.
Eventually, our laziness in writing more quickly led to the symbol being cross-hashed and the # was born. If you’re of a certain age, you know it from your phone growing up. In recent years, it has become part of our common language as the hashtag.
The ampersand is another language-based evolution that was caused by speedy and lazy scribes. The & is actually a combination of the letters E and T, linked together. Why E and T?
Et is Latin for and. As in et cetera, meaning “and the rest.” And please, never, ever say “eck cetera.” It’s on par with “expresso.”
More on “The History of the Ampersand.” (Medium | The Black Lion Banner)
But the at symbol? Not only is it absent from my typewriter, but it doesn’t even have a name.
The Italians call it a “snail,” the Dutch call it a “monkey tail.” It may have come from the Latin ad or the French à, but its first documented use was in 1536, in a letter by Francesco Lapi, who used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae.
It doesn’t appear on most early typewriters, but the inventor of email managed to drag it into modern usage as a link between name and address.
Read all about “The Accidental History of the @ Symbol” in Smithsonian Magazine.
Symbols are everywhere. If we know their history, it’s one more thing that can help us feel connected to each other, whether across the ocean or across the ages from each other.
If you enjoyed this, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Hyphens & Hashtags*: *The stories behind the symbols on our keyboard by Claire Cock-Starkey.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.