Mighty Red Pen

May 27, 2009

@ last

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:02 pm
Tags: ,

You probably never realized how much you really wanted to know more about that little @ sign, which has become so indispensable in our modern modes of communication. But search your feelings, young Skywalker—you’ll find really do want to know more. So check out a piece in The London Review of Books by Daniel Soar that explores the history and usage of @:

The new global battle for ownership of @ is in a way heartening: the old orthodoxy had it that it was merely a ligature used for accounting purposes. It was a combination of the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’ to designate ‘ea(ch)’, or of ‘a’ and ‘d’ for the Latin ad: ‘at’ or ‘to’ or something of equally diabolical simplicity. Either way, it had an aura of empire, whether derived from Britain or Rome. It was certainly in accounting for stuff that it made its way into the 20th century: it appeared as a key on the 1902 Lambert typewriter, made in New York, and it was as shorthand for pricing items—60 widgets @ $2 = $120—that it subsisted until 1971, when Ray Tomlinson of arpanet invented email. And now, of course, it’s ubiquitous. No one would know where anything was meant to go if it wasn’t for the amazing @.

Hat tip to our friends at Ducks and Drakes for this little tidbit.



  1. I found it really neat to discover during my recent stay in Spain that @ is used there informally to indicate gender non-specificity, as it looks a little like a cross between an “a” and a “o”. As in, “Hola chic@s” (chicos y chicas)

    Comment by ganchi — May 28, 2009 @ 8:55 am | Reply

  2. Actually, I did want to know more about it. Just last week, I was driving along and saw one of those large construction signs that said something like “Division closed @ 60th 5/22 – 5/28” and was surprised to see how far the “@” had come.

    Comment by tk. — May 28, 2009 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  3. tk — I can always count on you to be a word nerd after my own heart!

    ganchi — thanks for mentioning this — I knew about this, too, and think it’s actually a pretty interesting/very neat adaptation.

    Comment by mighty red pen — May 28, 2009 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

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