You’ve probably never given this much thought, but the unassuming, delightfully curly @ symbol has a lot to say about how we view the world. Here in America, we’re pretty literal when it comes to the at symbol names we give our curly-cued friend. “At sign” or “at symbol” is usually the term of choice. But in other countries, the @ symbol serves as a sort of Rorschach test for your keyboard. Does it look like a clever monkey’s tail to you? Looks like you’re in accord with the Germans. Do you see a diminutive mouse? The Chinese agree. Does it kind of look like something you might want to eat? In Israel, many people call it a shtrudel (or a strudel).
So where does the @ even come from? American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson usually gets the credit for giving the @ its current meaning in the context of email (and more recently, social media handles). Tomlinson created the world’s first email system in 1971. That same year, he decided to give new life to the @, which was already part of the standard keyboard but wasn’t used very much. His thinking was that @ was good shorthand for indicating that a user was “at” a certain computer or host. As he put it, “it’s the only preposition on the keyboard.”
But the history of the @ possibly begins as far back as the 6th or 7th century, and some linguists believe it started as a symbol of the Latin preposition ad (which means “at,” “to” or “toward”). Other theories posit that it was an adaptation of à, the French word for “at,” made easier for scribes to write.
Among Venetian merchants in the 16th century, @ stood for amphora, a standard-sized clay vessel of wine that was used as a unit of measurement in trade. A Florentine merchant is responsible for the first documented use of this in 1536, using @ to symbolize units of wine. From there, @ became a symbol of commerce, serving as shorthand for “at the rate of.”
Eventually, the @ turned up on typewriter keyboards, where it became known as the “commercial ‘a'” and was understood to be an abbreviation for “at.” And then Tomlinson took care of the rest.
Beyond all of that, @ is a cultural artifact and work of design that has wiggled its way into an esteemed art institution. The MoMA acquired the @ symbol into its collection in 2010. If you’re wondering how that would even work, that’s sort of the whole point. “The @ symbol has become so significant that people feel they need to make sense of it; hence it has inspired its own folkloric tradition,” MoMA wrote.
Without further ado, here are a few examples of at symbol names around the world — or what other countries see when they see the @ symbol.
France, Italy, South Korea: Snail
Russia: Little dog
Germany, Poland, South Africa, Indonesia: Monkey’s tail
Czech Republic: Rollmops (rolled pickled herring)
Wales: Little lamb’s tail
Spain, Portugal: Arroba (a measurement of weight)
Denmark, Sweden: Elephant’s trunk
Kazakhstan: Moon’s ear
Finland: Curled-up cat (miukumauku literally translates to “sign of the meow.” You’re welcome.)
Greece: Little duck
Netherlands: “Curly A” or “monkey’s tail”
Norway: Pig’s tail