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17 March 2008

Wherefore Art Thou @?

It occurred to me earlier while catching up on Jezebel posts earlier (no, I don't subscribe to it on account of its excess productivity at the expense of mine), that I'd never really complained about the use of the at-sign in blog post comments with the rough meaning of, "in response to Bexquisite wrote in comment higher up in this thread" (e.g. @Bexquisite: Well, clearly, it's all just a massive conspiracy against you, isn't it?). It annoys me because it stands for a lot of what is wrong with such - ah hem - heated debates: people don't talk to or with one another; they talk at each other. Isn't it great that the internet provides such a great medium for us to cooperate and collaborate rather than talking over or at one another?

Actually, I don't really mind that much because whatever its etymology (semiology?), it is quite a useful little device and it certainly seems as though it's going to stick, so I'll just have to pretend that I really am typing out "in response to X's earlier comment" in a way that is more convenient both for me and for the reader.

For such a small symbol, @ (or "the at sign") has a pretty long Wikipedia entry; I did know that it was used to stand for that favourite vowel of mine, schwa, when the reader/recipient may not have the IPA font downloaded (philistines!) to their computer and I had forgotten some of @'s affectionate sobriquets in foreign languages: most of them focus on the snail metaphor (Italian chiocciola, Belarusian сьлімак, and Welsh malwen) but there were some more creative ones in there too: the German Klammeraffe (spider monkey - isn't it great how German makes even the most charismatic little critter sound ugly?) and the Tagalog (pronounced tuh-GAH-log) utong (nipple; well isn't it?!).

The French stole theirs from the Spanish - arobase, which, according to La Trésor de la Langue Francaise (France's less-easily searchable but free equivalent of the OED, etymology-wise), is:

Ancienne mesure de poids (variant de 11 à 15 kg) et de capacité (valant de 10 à 16 litres), encore usitée en Espagne, au Portugal et dans plusieurs pays d'Amérique latine

i.e. It's an old measure of weight (around the oh-so-precise 11-15 kg) and of volume (bizarrely, 10-16 litres), still used in places more peasanty than France Spain, Portugal and parts of South America. The word - and the measure - comes from Arabic, originally. In other words, @ originated as a typographical convention, invented to make the lives of scribes and merchants a lot easier as it meant that they wouldn't need to write out arrobe each time. The same is true for ampersand (I don't buy the explanation that "&" looks a bit like a lower-case epsilon and a lower-case t, i.e. et; my capital es are very curvy indeed and I still can't get my ets to look anything like an ampersand); and who would doubt the validity of the £ sign? Not moi, and I'm sure that in time, I will grow used to bloggn @ ppl. Maybe. I'm sure I will never grow used to txtspk, though; I hope not, anyway.

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