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The typographic character @, called the at sign or at symbol, is an abbreviation of the word at or the phrase at the rate of in accounting and commercial invoices, e.g. "7 widget @ $2 = $14". Other names for the symbol—such as amphora , asperand, and monkey tail—have been suggested and occassionally used, but none are in general use in English. Today, this character is ubiquitous because of its use denoting at in e-mail addresses. In English, it is usually pronounced as at. Its official, typographic character name is commercial at in the ANSI, ITU-T, and Unicode character encoding standards. Some historical names are mentioned in the "History" section below.

History

There are several theories about the origin of the commercial at character:
  • The symbol developed as a mercantile shorthand symbol of "each at"—the symbol resembling a small "a" inside a small "e"—to distinguish it from the different "at" (symbolized by the mere letter "a") or "per." For example, the cost of "12 apples @ $1" would be $12, whereas the cost of "12 apples at $1" would be $1—a crucial and necessary distinction.
  • Medieval monks abbreviated the Latin word (at, toward, by, about) next to a numeral.
  • It was originally an abbreviation of the Greek preposition ανά (transliterated ana), meaning at the rate of or per.
  • An Italianmarker academic claims to have traced the @ symbol to the Italian Renaissance, in a Venetian mercantile document signed by Francesco Lapi on May 4, 1537. The document is about commerce with Pizarro, in particular the price of an @ of wine in Perumarker; @ meant amphora (Italian ; Spanish and Portuguese arroba). Currently, the word arroba means the at-symbol and a unit of weight. In this usage, the symbol represents one amphora, a unit of weight and volume based upon the capacity of the standard amphora jar, and entered modern meaning and use as "at the rate of" in northern Europe.


A hypothetical evolution of the at-sign
  • From Norman French "à" meaning "at" in the "each" sense, i.e. "2 widget à £5.50 = £11.00" is the accountancy shorthand notation in English commercial vouchers and ledgers to the 1990s, when the e-mail usage superseded the accountancy usage. It also is so used in Modern French and Swedish; in this view, the at-symbol is a stylised form of à that avoids raising the writing hand from the page in drawing the symbol; this compromise between @ and à in French handwriting is in street market signs.




@ was present in the 1902 model Lambert typewriter made by Lambert Typewriter Company of New York. Its inclusion in the original 1963 ASCII character set was unremarkable as it was a standard commercial typewriter character (the 1961 IBM Selectric typewriter's keyboard included @).

Modern uses

Commercial

In contemporary English usage, @ is a commercial symbol, meaning at and at the rate of. It has been used, rarely, in financial documents or grocers' price tags, and is not used in standard typography.

Computing and Internet

Its most familiar contemporary use is in e-mail addresses (transmitted by SMTP), as in jdoe@example.com (the user jdoe located at the example.com domain). BBN's Ray Tomlinson is credited with introducing this usage in 1971. This idea of the symbol representing located at in the form user@host also is seen in other tools and protocols: the Unix shell command ssh jdoe@www.example.com tries to establish a ssh connection to the computer with the hostname www.example.com using the username jdoe.

On the Indian subcontinent some still say "@" as "at the rate of", even in e-mail addresses. With the growing use of information technology companies in India for support and call centres, hearing "at the rate of" in the context of an e-mail address can potentially confuse other English speakers.

@ is used in various programming languages although there is not a consistent theme to its usage. For example:

  • In C# it denotes "verbatim strings" where no characters are escaped and two double-quote characters represent a single double-quote.
  • In Java, it is used to denote annotations, a kind of metadata, since version 5.0
  • In modal logic, specifically when representing possible worlds, @ is sometimes used as a logical symbol to denote the actual world (the world we are 'at').
  • In Pascal, @ is the "address of" operator (it tells the location at which a variable is found).
  • In Perl, @ prefixes variables which contain arrays.
  • In PHP, it is used just before an expression to make the interpreter suppress errors that would be generated from that expression.
  • In Python 2.4 and up, it is used to decorate a function (wrap the function in another one at creation time).
  • In Ruby, @ prefixes instance variables, and @@ prefixes class variables.
  • In Scala, it is used to denote annotations (as in Java), and also to bind names to subpatterns in pattern-matching expressions.
  • In Clipper, it is used to denote position on the screen. For example: @1,1 SAY "HELLO" to show the word "HELLO" in line 1, row 1.


@ may sometimes be used to represent a schwa, as the actual schwa character "ə" may be difficult to produce on many computers. It is used in this capacity in the ASCII IPA schemes SAMPA, X-SAMPA and Kirshenbaum.

On some online forums without proper threaded discussions, @ is used to denote a reply; for instance: "@Jane" to respond to a comment Jane made earlier.

In online discourse, @ is used by some anarchists as a substitute for the traditional circle-A.

It is frequently used in leet as a substitute for the letter A.

It is frequently used in typing and text messaging as an abbreviation for the words "at","about",”around” and “approximately”

In Internet Relay Chat (IRC), it is often shown before a user's nick to mark the operator of a channel.

In some cases, @ is used for "attention" in e-mails originally sent to someone else. For example, if an e-mail was sent from Catherine to Steve, but in the body of the e-mail, Catherine wants to make Keirsten aware of something, Catherine will start the line "@Keirsten" to indicate to Keirsten that the following sentence concerns her. This also helps with mobile e-mail users who can not see bold or color in e-mail.

@ is also used on many wireless routers/modems, where a solid green @ symbol indicates the router is connected and a solid amber @ indicates there is a problem.

In microblogging (such as Twitter and Laconica-based microblogs), @ before the user name is used to send publicly readable replies (e.g. "@otheruser: Message text here"). The blog and client software can automatically interpret these as links to the user in question. This use of the @ symbol was also recently rolled out to Facebook users on September 15, 2009.

In internet forums, the @ sign is used in lieu of a quote. For example, John posts something which is then followed by seven posts. Another user, Dan, wishes to reply directly to John. He can either quote him or begin his post @John: in order to indicate to whom he is speaking.

Gender-neutrality in Spanish and Portuguese

In Portuguese and Spanish, as well in other West Iberian languages where many words ended in '-o' when in the masculine gender and ended '-a' in the feminine, '@' can be used as a gender-neutral substitute which some advocates of gender-neutral language-modification feel indicates implicit linguistic disregard for women. These languages do not possess a neuter gender and the masculine forms are also used traditionally when referring to groups of mixed or unknown sex. The at-sign is intended to replace the desinence '-o', including its plural form '-os', due to the resemblance to a digraph of an inner letter 'a' and an outer letter 'o'.

As an example of the '@' being used for gender-inclusive purposes, we can consider the Spanish and Portuguese word amigos. When the word represents not only male friends, but also female ones, the proponents of a gender-inclusive language replace it with amig@s. In this sense, amigos would be used only when the writer is sure the group referred to is all-male. Usage of amigas is the same in traditional and such new forms of communication. Alternative forms for a gender-inclusive at-sign would be the slash sign (amigos/as) and the circle-A (amigⒶs), maybe as a kind of "bisexual digraph". More about it in Satiric misspelling.

The Real Academia Española disapproves the use of the at-sign as a letter. Many Portuguese and Spanish speakers may consider this usage also degrading. Some argue it is just more cultural imperialism. Others that there is no establish pronunciations, although there is at least one proposal in this sense. Português Com Inclusão de Gênero (Portuguese With Inclusion of Gender) recommends that Spanish speakers and those who speak Portuguese with no reducing final '-o' pronounce the at-sign using the phoneme phoneme [ɔ] (/aˈmigɔ/, where the stressed syllable, mi, is preceded by a high vertical line, as used in IPA).

[ɔ] is in same way between the "feminine" phoneme [a] (/aˈmiga/) and "masculine" one [o] (/aˈmigo/). The majority of Portuguese speakers, who do reduce a final '-o' to [u] (amigo is said as /aˈmigu/), have one more phonetic option, but never changing the stressed syllable. Details in Portuguese With Inclusion of Gender, which also proposes a lower case at-sign '@', since the original sign resembles an upper-case letter.

Other

In (especially English) science and technical literature, @ is used to describe the conditions under which data are valid or a measurement has been made. E.g. the density of saltwater may read d = 1.050 g/cm³ @ 15°C (read "at" for @), density of a gas d = 0,150 g/L @ 20°C, 1 bar, or noise of a car 81 dB @ 80 km/h (speed).

@ is also sometimes used (e.g. in articles about missing persons, obituaries, brief reports) to denote an alias after a person's proper name; for instance: "John Smith @ Jean Smyth" (a possible abbreviation of aka).

In chemical formulae, @ is used to denote trapped atoms or molecules. For instance, La@C60 means lanthanum inside a fullerene cage.

In Malagasy, @ is an informal abbreviation for the prepositional form amin'ny.

"Commercial at" in other languages

In most languages other than English, @ was less common before e-mail became widespread in the mid-1990s, although most typewriters included the symbol. Consequently, it is often perceived in those languages as denoting "The Internet", computerization, or modernization in general.
  • In Arabic it is at, spelled آتْ (using the English pronunciation).
  • In Armenian it is "shnik" which means puppy.
  • In Azeri it is at (using the English pronunciation).
  • In Basque it is "a bildua" (wrapped a).
  • In Belarusian it's called "сьлімак" ("helix", "snail")
  • In Bulgarian it is called кльомба ("klyomba", means nothing else) or маймунско а (majmunsko a "monkey A").
  • In Catalan it is called 'arrova' (which means a unit of measure), or 'ensaïmada' (because of the similar shape of this food speciality)
  • In Chinese
    • In mainland China it is quan a (圈a), meaning "circled a" or hua a (花a, lacy a). Sometimes as xiao laoshu (小老鼠), meaning "little mouse".
    • In Hong Kongmarker it is at (using the English pronunciation).
  • In Croatian it is most often referred to by the english word at. Informally, it is called a manki, coming from the local pronunciation of the English word, monkey. Note that the Croatian word for monkey, majmun, is not used to denote @.
  • In Czech and Slovak it is called zavináč (rollmops).
  • In Danish it is snabel-a ("(elephant's) trunk-a").
  • In Dutch it is called apenstaartje ("monkey-tail"), the use of "at" is increasing in popularity.
  • In Esperanto it is called ĉe-signo ("at" - for the e-mail use, with an address pronounced zamenhof ĉe esperanto punkto org), po-signo ("each"—refers only to the mathematical use) or heliko ("snail").
  • In Faroese it is kurla (sounds "curly"), hjá ("at"), tranta and snápila ("(elephant's) trunk-a").
  • 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").
  • In French it is arobase or arrobe or a commercial (though this is most commonly used in French-speaking Canada, and should normally only be used when quoting prices; it should always be called arobase or, better yet, arobas when in an e-mail address), and sometimes a dans le rond (a in the circle). Same origin as Spanish which could be derived from Arabic, ar-roub.
  • In Georgian it is "at" (using the English pronunciation), spelled ეთ–ი(კომერციული ეთ–ი).
  • In German it sometimes used to be referred to as Klammeraffe (meaning "spider monkey"). Klammeraffe refers to the similarity of @ to the tail of a monkey grabbing a branch. Lately, it is mostly called at just like in English
  • In Greek, it is most often referred to as papaki (παπάκι), meaning "duckling," due to the similarity it bears with comic character designs for ducks.
  • In Greenlandic Inuit language - it is called aajusaq meaning "a-like" or "something that looks like a"
  • In Hebrew it is colloquially known as shtrudel (שטרודל). The normative term, invented by The Academy of the Hebrew Language, is krukhit (כרוכית), which is a Hebrew word for strudel.
  • In Hindi it is "at" (using the English pronunciation).
  • In Hungarian it is called kukac ("worm, maggot").
  • In Icelandic it is referred to as "at merkið ("the at-sign") or "hjá" which is a direct translation of at.
  • In Indonesian it is usually read et. Variations exist - especially if verbal communication is very noisy - such as: a bundar/a bulat (meaning "circle A"), a keong ("snail A"), and (very rarely) a monyet ("monkey A").
  • In Italian it is chiocciola ("snail") or a commerciale, sometimes at (pronounced more often , rarely ) or ad.
  • In Japanese it is called attomāku (アットマーク, "at mark"). The word is a wasei-eigo, which are Japanese vocabulary forged from the English language or Gairaigo foreign loan words in general. It is sometimes called naruto, because of Naruto whirlpoolsmarker or food (kamaboko).
  • In Kazakh it is officially called айқұлақ ("moon's ear"), sometimes unofficial as ит басы ("dog's head").
  • In Korean it is called golbaeng-i (골뱅이; bai top shells), a dialectal form of daseulgi (다슬기), a small freshwater snail with no tentacles.
  • In Latvian it is pronounced same as in English, but, since in Latvian [æ] is written as "e" not "a" (as in English), it's sometimes written as et.
  • In Lithuanian it is eta (equivalent to English at but with Lithuanian ending)
  • In Luxembourgish it used to be called Afeschwanz (monkey-tail), but due to widespread use it is now pronounced 'at' like in English.
  • In Macedonian it is called мајмунче (pronun. my-moon-cheh, little monkey)
  • In Morse Code it is known as a "commat," consisting of the Morse code for the "A" and "C" run together as one character: (·--·-·). The symbol was added in 2004 for use with e-mail addresses, the only change since World War I.
  • In Norwegian it is officially called krøllalfa ("curly alpha" or "alpha twirl"). (The alternate alfakrøll is also common. Sometimes Snabel a(trunk a, as in elephant's trunk) is used. )
  • In Persian it is at (using the English pronunciation).
  • In The Philippinesmarker at means 'and' in Tagalog which could be used interchangebly in colloquial abbreviations. Ex: Magluto @ kumain. Cook and eat.
  • In Portuguese, it is called 'arroba' (from the Arabic arrub). The word arroba is also used for a weight measure in Portuguese. While there are regional variations, one arroba is typically considered as representing approximately 25 pounds, 11.5 kg, and both the weight and the symbol are called arroba. In Brazil, cattle are still priced by the arroba — now rounded to 15 kg. (This occurs because the same sign was used to represent the same measure.)
  • In Polish it is called, both officially and commonly małpa (monkey); sometimes also małpka (little monkey).
  • In Romanian it is Coadă de maimuţă (monkey-tail) or "a-rond". The latter is more commonly used and may come from a-round from its shape.
@ on an old Soviet computer (circa 1984)
  • In Russian it is most commonly sobaka (собака) (dog). The name "dog" has come from Soviet computers DVK where the symbol had a short tail and similarity to a dog.


  • In Serbian it is called лудо А/ludo A (crazy A), мајмунче/majmunče (little monkey) or мајмун/majmun (monkey)
  • In Slovenian it is called afna (little monkey)
  • In Spanish speaking countries it denotes a pre-metric unit of weight. While there are regional variations in Spainmarker and Mexicomarker it is typically considered to represent approximately 25 pounds (11.5 kg), and both the weight and the symbol are called arroba. It has also been used as a unit of volume for wine and oil.
  • In Swedish it is called snabel-a ("(elephant's) trunk-a"), kanelbulle (Cinnamon roll) or simply "at" like in the English language.
  • In Swiss German it is commonly called Affeschwanz ("monkey-tail").
  • In Thai it is commonly called at like English.
  • In Turkish it is et (using the English pronunciation). Also called as güzel a (beautiful a), özel a (special a), salyangoz (snail), koç (ram), kuyruklu a (a with a tail), çengelli a (a with hook) and kulak (ear).
  • In Ukrainian it is commonly called et ("at"), other names being ravlyk (равлик) (snail), slymachok (слимачок) (little slug), vukho (вухо) (ear) and pesyk (песик) (little dog).
  • In Vietnamese it is called a còng (bent a) in the North and a móc (hooked a) in the South.
  • In Welsh it is sometimes known as a malwen or malwoden (a snail).


On the final episode of the second series of BBC Radio 4 show The Museum of Curiosity, recorded in London on 19 May 2009 and broadcast on 8 June 2009, author Philip Pullman added the category of "things that were invented for one purpose, but are used for another" to the museum's collection. As an example, Pullman referred to @. The host of the show, QI creator John Lloyd, noted that in other languages the symbol has a proper name, and pledged on QI series A DVD to support widespread use of the term "Astatine" to refer to the symbol. This name was chosen as the chemical element astatine has the chemical symbol "At".

Small at sign

Besides the '@' (in its regular size), there is also an Unicode character for a small at-sign '﹫'. Its number is 65131 (decimal) and xFE6B (hexa) and it is located in Small Font Variants code chart. Depending on the font type this small at-sign can have the size of lower-case letter, but it is often smaller than that.

References

  1. merchant@florence wrote it first 500 years ago | Technology | The Guardian
  2. Bringhurst, Robert (2002). The Elements of Typographic Style (version 2.5), p.272. Vancouver: Hartley & Marks. ISBN 0-88179-133-4.
  3. Who sent the first e-mail?
  4. http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=109765592130
  5. http://buscon.rae.es/dpdI/SrvltGUIBusDPD?lema=genero#22
  6. http://numpol.com/br/pdf/2II.pdf in Portuguese and also http://conscienciaefervescente.blogspot.com/2009/08/proposta-do-portugues-com-inclusao-de.html, in Portuguese as well
  7. Vowels in Portuguese
  8. http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/UFE50.pdf


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