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Popularized by email addresses and twitter posts, the circle curling the little ‘a’ has a very interesting history attached to it.

OF MONKS AND TRADERS

There are multiple theories, tracing back to the middle ages. One theory states that medieval monks, who used to copy manuscripts, had a very tedious task, as every letter of the alphabet had to be carefully written by hand on each copy. Looking for shortcuts to reduce their work, they started using short forms for words. One of them was the latin word for toward, ‘at’, which the monks shortened by extending the ‘t’ over the ‘a’, thereby reducing two strokes.

An alternate theory says that the symbol was used as an abbreviation for the word “amphora”, which is a unit of measurement for large terracotta jars that were used to transport spices, grains and wine. In a letter discovered by the Italian scholar named Giorgio Stabile, a Florentine trader by the name of Francesco Lapi had used the @ symbol, possibly seen from the books the monks wrote.
The sentence read: “There, an amphora [an @] of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats.”

This is where the symbol’s relation to quantities started.

THE COMPUTER AGE: A NEW BEGINNING

Although it had an important role in commerce, it wasn’t given due recognition in the machine age. The typewriters of the 1800’s did not have a place for the @ symbol, and it went into obscurity. The earlier editions of computers, which used punching cards, did not acknowledge the existence of the @ symbol either. By 1889, however,  it started getting featured in keyboards.

Ray Tomlinson, famous for bringing the @ back to life.
Ray Tomlinson, famous for bringing the @ back to life.

The symbol got a new lease of life in 1971, when Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist in the US, wanted a symbol to separate the name of an individual from that of a computer in the Arpanet, a basic version of the modern Internet, and chose the @ symbol. He became the first person to send an email in the same year.

MODERN USE

Now, it is used in all email addresses to separate the username of a person with the domain name of the company with which the email is registered.

Some time back, Twitter started using the @ symbol to indicate a reply, by prefixing it to the name of the person.. The workers at Twitter noticed a group of people using the @ symbol to refer to a reply, and wrote it into their systems to make it a general indication of a response.

In modern English, the symbol is called at the rate of, although it is hardly used in official financial documentation or grocer lists.

There is no single English word to refer to the symbol.

 

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The fascinating story of the @ symbol
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