A post from Shady Characters

A brief history of the # and the @

Things are busy here at Shady Characters and I’m afraid there’s no time for a proper entry this weekend. What I can offer you instead is the brief history of the # and the @ that I put together recently for the Penguin Books blog — have a read, and feel free to drop by afterwards with any comments you might have!

6 comments on “A brief history of the # and the @

  1. Comment posted by Seth on

    L’Accademia della Crusca, the Italian institution that studies the Italian language, offers another version of the origin of @ as a ligature for the letters a and d:
    “As for the origin of the graphic sign it was believed that it was used by amanuenses to write the latin ad and that the flourish was a D in uncial writing, an ancient calligraphy used from the III to the VIII century and from the VIII to the XIII century mostly in headers and titles.”

    It goes on to say that this theory, first proposed by Berthold Louis Ullman in 1932, may not be correct since a study from 2000 only finds the symbol in texts written after the late middle ages, so after the uncial was widely used. It was first used by merchants as shorthand for amphora, as you said.
    But even if the theory is wrong, it still was the current theory when email was invented and could explain why the meaning of @ shifted from a unit of measure to a locative particle.

    Source in Italian.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Seth — I’ve read the book in which Ullman suggested that ‘@’ might come from ad, and even he seemed uncertain about the theory. But yes, it’s certainly a candidate for the use of ‘@’ to mean “at”.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

    Hello, I stumbled across your book Shady Characters @ the library yesterday and am halfway through it. I put it down because I want to savor the rest of it. It is right up my alley and I will be sad once I finish it.

    Anyways, here in New England some folks like me use the “@” to mean “approximately.” I think this is a regional quirk.

    I look forward to the rest of your book and bingereading you blog.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jon — thanks for stopping by. I’m very glad you’re enjoying the book! Also, it’s interesting to hear about this New England-specific use for ‘@’. When you say it means “approximately”, do you mean it has the standard meaning of ‘@’ (“at the rate of”) but with a fuzzier connotation of cost, or is it a more general stand-in for the word “approximately”?

    2. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

      I use it more generally. For example: Mystic, CT is @ 45 miles from Providence, RI.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Ah, I see. I’d use ‘~’, but that’s probably the lapsed scientist in me talking. Thanks for the reply!

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