A post from Shady Characters

The @-symbol: addenda

The ‘@’ symbol’s lack of a suitably inspiring English name has generated some interest from Shady Characters readers. Not for us ‘spider monkey’, ‘rollmop herring’ or ‘rose’; instead, we’re stuck with ‘commercial at’, or even plain old ‘at’. Joseph Chow (@josephch) suggests ‘atra’ to rectify the situation, writing that:

I think we do need something in the middle between ‘commercial at’ and just ‘at’. Former is too long, and latter in some contexts can be confused with the normal word ‘at’.”

Independently, Josh Farmer wrote to propose the oddly similar term ‘aterra’. As he writes at his blog Opinionated Type:

In my opinion, the name for the @ symbol should have several qualities:

  1. Soft vowel sounds, such as the ‘a’ in “at”.
  2. Clarity and simplicity: the feeling of, “That makes sense.”
  3. Seeing its current use in culture, it might be good to have it reference a location.

So I’ll start it off with a suggestion: aterra (pronounced uh-tehr’-uh).

On a different note, Brian Raiter recounts a story behind the unusual alias ‘astatine’:

On a class bulletin board (the real kind, not the electronic kind), […] some anonymous person averred that the formal name for @ was “astatine”. I was quite excited to learn this, at first anyway. But a nagging suspicion sent me to the dictionary to double-check. To be sure, astatine really is a word, but it is the name of a chemical element (in fact it is the rarest naturally-occuring element on the planet, due in part to its brief half-life). […] I checked [a dictionary] to see if it had an entry for “at sign”. And suddenly everything became clear to me. There, just after the extensive entry for the word “at”, was the following line:

At symbol: astatine

I had forgotten, you see, that the one- and two-letter abbreviations for the chemical elements that you find on the periodic table are technically known as “chemical symbols”. Astatine’s symbol was At (since arsenic had already claimed As).

What do you think? Does ‘atra’ or ‘aterra’ capture the inherent ‘at’-ness of the ‘@’, or is ‘astatine’ a worthy name for the symbol?

Shady Characters’ next series of articles will begin in three weeks’ time, and it’s going to be a big one. Come back on the 4th of September for Irony and sarcasm marks, part 1 of 3.

26 comments on “The @-symbol: addenda

  1. Comment posted by Matt Walton on

    What’s wrong with “at sign”? A bit prosaic, I suppose.

  2. Comment posted by Adam Rice on

    “Astatine” does have a certain circular appeal to it. But I don’t mind calling it the “at sign.”

  3. Comment posted by Nick on

    “at sign” seems clear enough if you’re trying to spell a handle outline. (except for the rare blah@sign.com I suppose)

  4. Comment posted by Brian on

    It is prosaic, yes. More to the point, I think, is that it just doesn’t sound like a real name. All the other punctuation marks have formal names, ones that speak to their pasts. “At sign” is fine for an informal name, but in a formal context it sounds like a placeholder name — one that you intended to go back and replace in the final draft just as soon you get a moment to go look up its real name, but then forgot to and just sent it off as-is.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian,

      I’m in agreement in that ‘at sign’ doesn’t have quite the right feeling of formality. I’d be quite happy to plump for ‘commercial at’: it’s unambiguous, and you can’t argue that it doesn’t have the requisite gravitas, even if it does lack any particular feeling of excitement. It’s certainly no ‘octothorpe’.

  5. Comment posted by Zachary Spector on

    The Jargon File has this to say:

    @ Common: at sign; at; strudel. Rare: each; vortex; whorl; [whirlpool]; cyclone; snail; ape; cat; rose; cabbage; .

    It happens that “strudel” is already a recognized word in English. It works. “Atra” does have a nice ring, though.

  6. Comment posted by Philllip Chee on

    The only problem for me, the word “Atra” is the name of my pivoting head Gillette razor blade. Plus, it is a ubiquitous acronym, everything from the American Tort Reform Association to the Alberta Trail Riding Association.

    Having a degree in biology I find kinship with “astatine”.

  7. Comment posted by Victoria on

    I favor the KISS principle. Just call it “At Sign.”

    I admit to being selfish, because 1) I’ve always known it as that and 2) it makes a great swear word when shouted at the top of your lungs. (a la swearing in cartoon strips) along with “pound sign” (octothorpe) and “asterisk”.

    If that doesn’t work, fully co-opt it into the computer age by calling it “At Key”. (Also, it makes it easier to swear in “symbolism” without repeating yourself.)

  8. Comment posted by Fred Zimmerman on

    Form should follow function. The modern functions of the at sign are 1) rate per unit and 2) location identifier. We should reverse-engineer a Latinate from those meanings. How about the “locATrix” or the “rATix”?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Fred — thanks for the comment.

      I think these days it’s too easy to conflict with brand or product names — ‘ratix’ sounds very similar to Motorola’s new ‘Atrix’ smartphone. In fact, now I type that, ‘atrix’ sounds good to me: ‘keith atrix shadycharacters dot co dot uk’. What do you think?

  9. Comment posted by andrew wilson lambeth on

    well, i too really like ‘atrix’ ( that would be a feminine ending, wouldn’t it ? all the better ) . when i asked compositors and sub-editors in fleet street what various characters were called ( this was a long time ago ), they almost all called this curly thing we’re talking about the ‘rate mark’, and that’s what i’ve thought of it as ever since ( ie—’at the rate of…’ ) . but that old name makes so little sense in our digitally reconfigured age that the need for a new one has long been pressing . and ‘atrix’ fills that empty snailshell nicely, i feel

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Andrew — I have to agree. ‘Atrix’ isn’t a million miles away from Joseph Chow’s original suggestion of ‘atra’, and unless I’m mistaken, it also fulfils Josh Farmer’s criteria for a sensible ‘@’ symbol name. I may have to start pushing ‘atrix’!

  10. Comment posted by Riccardo Mori on

    Slightly unrelated: as the @ symbol in English bears the rather uninspired name of ‘commercial at’, the ampersand in Italian is called ‘commercial and’. How about that.

    Cheers, and keep up the great work!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Riccardo — that’s a neat coincidence. I don’t think I’ve heard of ‘commercial and’ before. I wonder what the etymology is?

      Thanks for the comment!

  11. Comment posted by Mark Dowson on

    In the 28 May 2009 issue of London Review of Books, Daniel Soar wrote an article about the at sign (which he says “fancy typographers call the arrobase”). He noted that it was called different things in different languages (Korean: “snail; Danish: “elephant’s trunk”; Turkish: “ram”; Hungarian: “maggot”)

    This sparked of a correspondence in LRB lasting into October with various readers commenting and providing additional national variations.

    Well worth reading through (www.lrb.co.uk) although the inability to use “@” as a search term makes it a little painful, although if you go to the letter in the 9 October 2009 issue (2009 issue 19) you should be able to follow a backward train of links

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Mark — thanks for the comment! For interested parties, the LRB letter trail starts here.

  12. Comment posted by Aaron Davies on

    Some of my Indian colleagues, when discussing email addresses or code, pronounce it “at-the-rate”, as in “Send it to foo at-the-rate example dot com.”

  13. Comment posted by Pierrick on

    In french, we already have a defined name for the “@” symbol : “Arobase”. Wikipedia tells me it comes from castillian “arroba” which was a measure unit. Most of the time, we use “Arobase” but the english word “at” is heard more and more.

  14. Comment posted by Zeissmann on

    Just stick to the ‘at sign’. When I hear people in Poland call it „małpa” (monkey), I think it’s just lame. Personally, I always avoid this name and prefer to call it simply „at”.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Zeissmann – to each their own. I’m partial to “asperand”, although it’s quite a recent term and it doesn’t seem to have caught on yet.

  15. Comment posted by PAR on

    A fascinating article.
    How about ‘ampersat’? Similar to, but distinct from ‘ampersand’ (though perhaps not distinct enough?)?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi PAR — thanks for the comment! I came across the term “ampersat” as I was researching the ampersand, but I don’t recall finding anything concrete about its etymology. I’d have to imagine it comes from the same root as “ampersand”.

    2. Comment posted by PAR on

      Thanks for responding. I’m sure you’re correct in your assumption.

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