A few years ago we published a post inspired by the British newspaper The Guardian‘s question: “Does the symbol @ have a name? If not, any suggestions?” Many readers responded with “the at sign,” its boring name in English, and some explained its origin in commerce and bookkeeping. However, other readers provided translations of the more colorful names used in other languages.
Some of these names were quite descriptive. In Israel it was called a “strudel.” The Dutch called it apestaart, which means monkey’s tail. In Italian, it was chiocciola or snail.
In Czech, the word was zavinac, rolled pickled herrings known in the US and Germany as rollmops; in Russian, sabachka or puppy. Uzbeks called it a puppy too: kuchukcha. In Finland the sign was colloquially referred to as a miuku-mauku or miumau, which is the sound that Finnish cats make. Hungarians called it kukac, a little worm (the kind you might find crawling out of an apple). The Swedes called it snabel-a — “snabel” is a word for an elephant’s trunk, so the literal meaning is “a, with a trunk.”
In updating our post for today, I wondered whether the globalization of tech language is threatening quirky @-terms with extinction. I reached out to our network of international partners and confirmed that many of these are still in use. Also, since there’s been a lot of hoopla lately about improvements in Google Translate, I wanted to know whether these idioms would survive machine translation. To test, I retrieved translation audio-recordings of the phrase in a bunch of languages. I expected to hear the English word “at,” if only because I was entering a symbol into a text box. But, to my surprise, the computerized voices used some of the international terms in the translated results of “firstname.lastname@example.org” (not my real address).
In Polish, the symbol is called “monkey,” so the literal translation of a person reading out the email address would would be “jen monkey gmail dot com” — in Czech, “jen rollmop dot com” and in Hungarian, “jen worm dot com.” Swedish and Russian kept the whimsy also. Sadly, the Finnish audio only returned the English “at,” as did the Dutch and Hebrew. People in-country are still be using the colorful terms in everyday speech, but in this sad little corner of the Internet a bit of linguistic diversity is hidden. However, idioms are stubborn, often outlasting their original meanings. I suspect the @ will conjure a virtual zoo for years to come. From our perspective in language services, the ability to capture these subtleties of local speech, especially for global marketing texts, will always be the province of human translators.
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Does your language have a unique term for @? Please share in the comments!
All this made me wonder – how did the @ sign become a universal email signifier? According to Smithsonian magazine, it was first used in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist at BBN Technologies. Tomlinson was working on the Arpanet, the government-funded forerunner to the modern Internet. To send messages from one computer user to another, he figured an “address” required the name of the user and the name of the computer, connected by a symbol that was not already in wide use by programmers. @ happened almost by chance:
Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.” Tomlinson chose @—“probably saving it from going the way of the ‘cent’ sign on computer keyboards,” he says.
Unfortunately, Tomlinson didn’t save that historic first email, so we don’t have a “Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you”-type phrase to remember. My guess is, the first message was probably “test.” Nevertheless, it’s funny that this little squiggle was once in danger of being lost, but is now one of the most commonly used symbols in the world.