The Mouse, the Snail, the Monkey’s Tail: Secret Origin of the @ Symbol

As a web design and software development company, we deal with a whole aspect of language far removed from the everyday.  In the 17 years we’ve been in business, it has been interesting to see how some of these have entered the public consciousness as well, to the point where some are common for everyday use.

But have you ever wondered where some of these symbols you see every day on your computer came from? While reading the Smashing Magazine newsletter today, there was an interesting post about the origin of the Bluetooth symbol and how it relates to the century Danish King.  But what I found really interesting was the background of a symbol seen even more often yet considered less:  the @ symbol.

Our friend the @ symbol.For example, did you know that the @ is suggested to have origins in the sixth century when used by monks for writing the Latin word “ad” which means “at” or “towards”?  From Origins of Common UI Symbols:

Ah @, the only symbol on the list to earn a spot in the MoMa’s architecture and design collection.

How has this fetishized symbol become so potent over the years? It probably has something to do with the net-ruling rune’s deep and mysterious origins. It has been known by many names: the snail (France and Italy), the little mouse (China), the monkey’s tail (Germany). In 1971, a Bolt, Beranek & Newman programmer Raymond Tomlinson decided to insert the symbol between computer network addresses to separate the user from the terminal. Prior to Tomlinson’s use, the @ also graced the keyboard of the American Underwood in 1885 as an accounting shorthand symbol meaning “at the rate of.” Go back even further and things start to get hazy. Some suggest that @ has its origins in the sixth century, when monks adopted it as a better way of writing the word ad-Latin for “at” or “toward”-that was not so easily confused with A.D., the designation for Anno Domini, or the the years after the death of Christ.

 If you have a moment, take a look at the Origins of Common UI Symbols site.  It’s a quick and entertaining read, and you can see where the power, pause, USB and more symbols come from.

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