Interesting Words

Pronunciation: æt-sain

The at-sign, as English-speakers call it, is used throughout Europe, if not the world, to indicate the rate by which a set of items is valued, for instance, “to buy two pounds of tomatoes @ (at) $5 a pound.” It is also used as an indicator of an e-mail address, like “,” separating the account name from the domain name.

@ is a symbol widely used in English that does not have a special name as do the ampersand, semicolon, and period. We call it the ’at-sign” because it symbolizes the word at in price quotations. In Europe, however, this symbol has taken on a myriad of highly inventive names. Fasten your seatbelts!

Most Europeans see animals in the at-sign. The Dutch call it an apenstaart(je) “monkey’s tail,” while the Germans call it a Klammeraffe “spider monkey.” The Poles and Serbians also see monkeys in @, too: in Polish that word is malpa and in Serbian, majmun, but their fellow Slavs, the Russians, see it as a little dog, sobachka. The Finns call it kissanhäntä “a cat’s tail.” In Portuguese and Spanish, it is an arroba, a unit of weight equivalent to 15 kilograms. @ reminds some peoples of food. The Czechs and Slovaks call it a zavinác “rollmop.” When they are hungry, Swedes see a kanelbulle “cinnamon bun” in @, but after a good meal it is just a snabel-A “(elephant) trunk A.” The French and Italians see snails when they see @: the French call it an escargot and the Italians, a chiocciola.

The origin of the symbol @ is the French preposition à “to, at, in” in expressions like: à 2 euros le kilo “at 2 euros the kilo.” The grave accent over this word lengthened over time until it completely embraced the a. In fact, the use of a as a preposition meaning “per” in English expressions like “five dollars a pound’ and “twenty miles an hour” came to us from French à way before it transmogrified into @.

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