By Sebastien Hayez. Published December 06, 2021
@: History of a sign
My 9 years old kid is typing a text on my laptop during our holidays. Sometimes he likes to design a pixel font on Fontstruct. But what he prefers is the @ sign, which is like a small snail to him. A simple sign, spiral shaped, that everyone uses everyday since the internet came into our lives. But I remember when I was a kid, my mother kept an old typewriter, probably an Olivetti Lettera 22, and the @ was already here, a long time before the first e-mails began.
I’m happy my youngest son never asked the history behind this graphic symbol, that’s why I've spent some time searching before he starts asking these questions.
So, why is this @ is on every keyboard or has been so for decades, even before e-mails? What does it mean if it’s not only an “at” sign? Marc H. Smith, a french-english paleographer, has done amazing work tracing the history of @. The French speakers can have a look at his lecture at the Ecole nationale des chartes here or read his article in issue 55 of Graphê, 2013.
A first step is to eradicate all the various and funny hypotheses like the latin “ad” abbreviation, which had never been used in the writing of copyists monks nor in the diplomatic documents of the XVII & XVIIIth centuries (some explanations later in this text).
The spanish origin of @
Spain has been occupied by arabic peoples since the VIIIth century, modeling a new culture, a new language at his contact. “Ar-roub” is an Arabic word meaning “the quarter” of a hundred kilos: 25 kilos. Its Spanish transliteration is “arroba” or “arrova” which gives us the name abbreviated in @, attested in Portugal since 1520 and in Spain in 1530 (but we could find some documents from 1520 too).
An hypothesis was proposed by Professor Giorgio Stabile in 2000 after reading the @ as the latin abbreviation for “amphora” in a sevillian merchant letter of 1536, arguing the @ sign was also seen as a titulus pictus, the hand painted mark on amphora. Pure fantasy: the amphora abbreviation is not documented elsewhere and should be considered as a misreading of the arroba weight measure abbreviation.
The arroba written as a @ has been used from 1520 till 1880, date of the generalization of the metric system in Spain. Regarding the typographic use, we can date its appearance in 1754 as an abbreviative glyph in the Ortografia de la lengua castellana of the Spanish Royal Academy. Spanish types founders cutted the punch for printing linguistic and accounting manuals. Later, French founders used the @ in Spanish manuals since 1821 and perhaps before.
While the arroba was a Spanish measure abbreviation, we don’t know yet why it’s also used as the commercial “at” sign. Anyway, paleographers had also noticed some appearance of the @ sign before the arroba abbreviation. So, there’s another reason behind this use.
An abbreviation is mostly a contradiction of a whole thing into a simpler sign. Acronyms, monograms are both abbreviative forms, because they stand with fewer lines than what they show. In the case of the @ sign, it’s the first letter encapsulated in a spiral, but the ductus (the decomposition of the line drawn by the hand) should be seen as a lowercase “a” with a small line above: called titulus, it’s still use in today’s Spanish language under the name of tilde.
@ could indicate many things under this common writing. Marc Smith found some medieval use before 1400, “@ciainnes” (“anciennes” in modern french, means “ancient”, “old”) in a document act written at Ornans, Franche-Comté, France, in 1391.
Preposition: from “a” to “à” and “at”
Those who are still following this text should shout “And what about the commercial at sign?” Perhaps you should think our @ is just a common abbreviated form for “at”, that's all. The final “t” is written in a dynamic ductus, close to an oncian “d”, the journey is over, the spiral is closed. Nonsense! There’s another story to tell.
In the middle of the XVth century, in northern Spain, a graphic curiosity appeared, probably influenced by the Latin abbreviation seen before. The Spanish “e” (and) conjunction is written in a rolled up shape, then, by another influence, the preposition “a” (at).
This @ preposition is attested in the XVIIth century in Spain but also in commercial acts in Italy, and will be in use till the mid-XVIIIth century.
But since the mid-XVIIth century, another concurrent form appears as a “à” preposition, which is the common form for “at” in French (but also in Italian at this time) depicting the prices for goods, for French language but also for german, flemish or swedish. Both @ meaning “à” and “arroba” were probably in use in the same period in Italy.
Now, let’s come back to England! In 1728, we can find a plate engraved by John Bland in his manual An essay in writing, 1730, with a wonderful ornamented “a”. This sign is not our modern @ but stands for prices and also change rates, then become the classic spiral shape. From the mid-XVIIIth century, @ is used everywhere for the common abbreviation for prices and rates in the English commercial script on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1805, we can find it in the accounting manuals, like the Elements of book-keeping, by Patrick Kelly, attesting his common use in commercial documents.
Nothing exceptional to see the @ in the very first keyboards for mechanical writing machine, like the Caligraph No.2 Commercial, in 1883.
During the XVI & XVIIth centuries, its generic use was quite popular even in the Iberic peninsula. @o for “anno” (year) or @to for “Antonio” in Spain, while France was using @r for “avoir” (to have), @e for “autre” (other), and during the XVII & XVIIIth centuries even @ for “aune(s)” wich stand for a length measure unity no longer in use today.
Ray Tomlinson was an informatician at the end of 1971 but he wasn't prepared to send the first electronic message. While creating the first electronic address he was looking for a character to cut both parts of the address on the keyboard of his Teletype Model 33 ASR.
After a short hesitation, he typed tomlinson@bbn-tenexa. This sign is spelled “at” and “commercial at” in the English language. The name is spread around the world, that’s why Japanese use “ato marco”, transliteration of “at mark”.
But my son is also right: it’s also a snail, as Italian, Bielorussian, Corean, Catalan and Esperanto languages say. Animals are a great source of inspiration for the @ name : German, Dutch, Romanian, Polish are using a name referring to a “monkey’s tail” or “spider monkey”; Danish & Swedish prefers “a in a trunk shape”, while Finish called it “meow sign” or “cat’s sign”. Greek uses “small duck”, while Russian @ is a dog.
If you prefer food, the Hebrew see a strudel, Czech a roll mops, and Catalan a pastry.
“Small mouse” or “flower” is used in Chinese. Flemish prefer poetry with “alpha with hair curl”.
About the article’s author
Sébastien Hayez was an art director and graphic designer before becoming an art teacher and an independent researcher in the field of graphic design and type design history. His main topics are the history of logos, square books, modernism, and the minimalist italian designer AG Fronzoni 1923-2002. You can read his contributions in the pages of magazines such as Etapes, TheShelf Journal, Pli, Kiblind, Yellow Submarine, Fiction, or listen to his lectures for Les Rencontres de Lure or Fonts & faces #7.