Frequently Asked Reference Questions
Ampersand, asterisk, tilde, comma, parentheses – most of the commonly used symbols in the English language have particular names associated with them, so we can talk about them without having to say “you know, that squiggly symbol that kind of looks like the letter S.”
With the emergence of the Internet, and with it, the important role that the “@” sign plays in e-mail addresses and social media handles today, this once uncommon symbol now has a lot of people wondering what to call it.
So, if you’re one of these people asking yourself “what is @ called?”, here are some names it commonly goes by:
Officially, this symbol is called commercial at. Unofficially, most people seem to refer to it as the at sign or just at. Recently, there has also been a movement to call it the atmark. There are also numerous nicknames for it, including snail, curl, strudel, whorl, and whirlpool. Many of these nicknames for the now ubiquitous symbol have been translated from other languages such as Ukrainian and Hebrew.
Where the at sign came from though is a bit of a mystery, and there are several theories behind its origin. One theory suggests that the sign was developed to reduce the number of strokes tired monks used while transcribing manuscripts in the medieval period for words like toward or at. Another popular theory is that it was used to indicate amphora – a unit of measurement based on the capacity of large terracotta jars called amphora jars, which were used for shipping wine, spices, and grain since the 6th century.
The first recorded use of the at sign though was in a 1536 letter by Francesco Lapi, a Florentine merchant who used it to indicate amphora. He wrote the sentence “There, an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats.” where he used @ to represent amphora.
Of course, by the late 1800s, @ had become known as “the commercial A” and was used largely in transactional or accounting contexts.
However, it was eventually in 1971 that BBN Technologies’ programmer Ray Tomlinson proposed that the at sign be used in email addresses the way it is used today. The purpose was to represent “located at” in user@host.
Interested in learning more about the origins of @, and what other countries call it? Check out these web pages:
@ – A Sign of the Times — an article by Karl-Erik Tallmo that was originally published in Swedish in Svenska Dagbladet in 1994
Where it’s at — an article by Michael B Quinion from his “World Wide Words” website
A Natural History of the @ Sign — by Scott Herron of Herron Technical Communication
Does the symbol @ have a name? — an online discussion from the “Semantic Enigmas” section of The Guardian website