Although not technically speaking a punctuation mark but a symbol, logogram or a ligature, the @ symbol is written as an ‘a’ inside a circular swoosh which is the mark that we make when jotting down someone’s email – a quick twiddle of the pen from your best shorthand does the trick. Affectionately known as the ‘elephant’s trunk’ in Danish, ‘little duck’ in Greek, ‘hanging monkey’ in German and ‘pig’s tail’ in Norwegian, most people refer to it as the at or less commonly the commercial sign. It is part and parcel of today’s everyday life – often associated with emails, the at @ symbol has had a distinguished life so far.
The origin of the @ symbol remains a mystery as there are various scholars that claim to know the specifics of its first sighting. Some claims date back to the mid 1300s with the @ symbol appearing in religious manuscripts by medieval Bulgarian Monks translating Greek texts for the word Amin or Amen at the end of a verse.
Another theory is that the medieval monks saved time, space, expensive ink and paper by abbreviating the Latin word for ad meaning ‘at the rate of’. For example if you purchased 6 hood robes at the rate of 2 farthings each, to save space the monks would write 6 hood robes @ 2 farthings each, allowing the monk more precious prayer time. At a time when scribes would often decorate texts with looping flourishes with their reed pens or quills the lowercase ‘d’ would resemble a reversed ‘6’ so it’s not hard to imagine that the @ sign was formulated under the scribes handwritten letterforms creating a ligature of ad.
But it was in 1971 when an American computer programmer called Ray Tomlinson gave the @ sign its most prominent and familiar usage. Tomlinson was contracted by the US government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency who had been given the mammoth task of connecting computers all over America. Embarking on connecting people to computer terminals was no mean feat – trying to determine a way of linking the user and company to a host without being ambiguous for computer systems to decipher he opted for the @ sign. The aptly named ARPANET system became the precursor of the internet as we know it today and Tomlinson is known as the inventor of the first email system.
Image set in handwritten typeface FS Shepton.