Email is considered a crucial part of the Internet. Nearly everyone uses email as a method of communication every day, every hour…well, I don’t need to get into the minute details.
Ray Tomlinson came up with the first email messaging system back in 1971. He came up with “@” as a way to separate the users from the machines that they were using, because at the time, mail could only be sent between two people on the same computer. Little did Tomlinson know he would usher in a whole new way of communication when he told a colleague, “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”
Thanks to that forbidden experiment, we now fire up emails using “@” without a second thought. Username@domain.com (or whatever dot ending) has become almost as commonplace as phone numbers. When the email address needs to be said in non-written formats (i.e. spoken or signed), we understand that the meaning of “@” is “at.” But are you aware that @ isn’t always where it’s at?
There seems to be definitions of “@” that has nothing to do with the English meaning. What do you see when you see “@”? In other languages, there seems to be linguistic versions of the “@” that is like the Rorschach ink blot test. Keep in mind that a large number of people surfing the world wide web live in countries whose language isn’t based on the English alphabet. As a matter of fact, their keyboards did not include the “@” symbol until after heavy usage of email deemed it necessary.
According to A Natural History of the @ Sign, “@” metaphors “…range from animals (snail, worm, little dog, horse) to body parts (elephant’s trunk, monkey’s tail, cat’s foot, pig’s ear) to food (herring, strudel, cinnamon roll, pretzel).” I’ve selected some definitions from the website that I thought were interesting (italics mine):
Czech (Czech Republic)
In Czech, @ is called zavinac (pronounced ZAHV-in-ach), meaning “rollmops,” or pickled herring. Perhaps the shape suggests herring packed tightly in a jar! Or those leatherly fruit roll-ups!
Many Finnish terms for @ are connected with cats. Not content with naming the sign for what it looks like, Finnish names it for what it sounds like. In addition to “kissanhnta [cat's tail], “miau,” “miumau,” and “miuku” are all “miau merkki” [meow marks] in Finnish. This is for the cat lovers out there…don’t be so catty.
In German, @ is most often called either “Affenschwanz” [monkey's tail] or “Klammeraffe” [hanging monkey]. This is also a term of zoological classification, for various South American monkeys, including the spider monkey. Some people call it the “Ohr” [ear]. So does the slash thru the @ means no ear like the international deaf symbol?
In Hebrew, it’s most often either a “shablul” or “shablool”[snail] or a ” shtrudl” [strudel, that is, the pastry]. In both cases, it’s something that is rolled up. And it smells good baking in the oven. Now I’m hungry.
Hungarians evidently don’t think much of e-mail, as they’ve elected to call the @ sign “kukac” pronounced KOO-kots [worm or maggot]. Don’t try to worm your way out of this subject, people!
Many Koreans call it “dalphaengi” [snail]. That’s ironic, since email is supposed to be a lot faster than snail mail.
Mandarin Chinese (Taiwan)
In Taiwan Mandarin Chinese, @ is called “xiao lao-shu” [little mouse] or “lao shu-hao” [mouse sign]. It is also called “at-hao” [at sign] or “lao shu-hao” [mouse sign]. So what do they call the computer mouse?
In Norwegian, @ is called either “grisehale” [pig's tail] or “kro/llalfa” [curly alpha].
In Poland most e-mailers call @ “malpa” [monkey]. Other terms: “kotek” [little cat] and”ucho s’wini” [pig's ear].
In Russian, the “official” term for @ is “a kommercheskoe” [commercial a], but it is usually called “sobachka” [little dog or "doggie"]. Other terms: obezjana [the monkey] and pljushka [a Russian pastry].
The word in Slovene is “afna.” Perhaps this is a loan word from German, where the mark is called, among other things, “affenschwanz” [monkey's tail]. There is a similar word in Slovenian, “afna” meaning “a woman who overdresses, applies too much make-up, etc.” Thinking of Tammy Faye Baker, Dolly Parton…
E-mailers in Sweden have the greatest variety of terms available for referring to @. The official term recommended by the Svenska Spreknemnden (The Swedish Language Board) is “snabel-a” [trunk-a, or "a with an elephant's trunk], and this is still the most common. At one time, the board attempted to introduce a more serious name, “at-tecken” [at-sign] but it didn’t really catch on. Another imaginative name sometimes heard in Swedish is “kanelbulle” [a kind of cinnamon roll].
Most Turkish e-mailers call @ “kulak” [ear] or even “Ohr” ["ear" in German]. Some have suggested calling @ “at” which sounds the same, of course, but in Turkish means “horse.”
Who says you don’t learn something new everyday? Now I’m wondering what the ampersand,”&,” may mean in other languages? Person with Big Butt Sitting Down on Ground? That’s another mystery for me to crack in the future, unless someone save me the trouble and clue me in.
So what does the “@” remind you of? Let me know, and you’re also free to provide your own tongue-in-cheek remarks about the descriptions above. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading to the nearest bakery for a kanelbulle with extra frosting and nuts. YUM!