I recently read that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York has acquired the @ sign for its collection. That got me to thinking about the @. I use it every day, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of times. But I realized I don’t know where @ came from, or even its real name. MOMA has it now, so maybe @ is short for “art.” That’d be an improvement over the rather lame “at sign,” which everyone calls it by default. I find suspicious that nobody bothered to name the @. We don’t call the period a “stop sign,” or the exclamation point an “I’m so excited sign,” or the comma a “hang on a second, let me take a breath sign.” But the @ sign was around long before MOMA got it, so it must have an official name and some kind of back story – unless @ is ... living off the grid. Oh boy.
My ignorance about something that’s become part my identity concerns me. All my emails are addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I use @timstutler as a Twitter handle. And I’m not alone in this: somebody has not only me but also the rest of the developed world hoisting a mysterious icon that we know nothing about. For all we know, @ could be the mark of Beelzebub – or worse: a secret sign for those inexplicable (and, frankly, scary) “Beliebers.” How could we have been so cavalier?
Maybe we all just got used to @ over time. It’s been around as long as I can remember – longer even; I’m told that every American typewriter manufactured since the beginning of the last century has an @ key.
But here’s the strange part: I never used it on the typewriter – ever. And as far as I know, nobody else in history ever tapped the @ key – at least not before the Internet. So who would put a useless key on the typewriter 75 years before anyone would touch it? And why? Now I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but my memory tells me that the symbol is somehow connected with the greatest American tragedies – like on that grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963 (YMMV*) ...
... and with John Wilkes Booth.*
And now that I think about it, I seem to recall an engraving of “Kilroy” on the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC that seems a blatant attempt to rewrite history.*
So it’s all a nefarious, grammatically-challenged government conspiracy, right? Perhaps part of some White House plot to make us swap our beloved guns for the squiggly a-with-a-tail love that has no name? That's an intriguing (and vaguely icky) prospect.
No ... probably not. It turns out that as early as the 1300s, the @ symbol appeared in the Medieval Bulgarian translation of the Manasses Chronicle. One theory attributes the symbol to medieval monks who “converted the Latin word for ‘toward’ – ad – to ‘a’ with the back part of the ‘d’ as a tail,” presumably to facilitate their transcriptions. Hmm, medieval monks drawing a “D” with a tail. That just seems wrong to me. And wasn’t that the fictional plot of a Tom Hanks movie?
So maybe a murderous, super-secret church cult is responsible? Well, the “experts” don’t think so. In fact, they don’t feel that either the church or the government is behind @. They’d have us believe that @’s origins are quite innocent. The experts tell us it was used by merchants as shorthand for “at,” as in, “six muffins @ two pence a muffin will cost you twelve pence.” And they say that some fellow named Ray Tomlinson first used the @ symbol in 1972 to indicate the computer location of e-mail recipients.
"Help me, my Beliebers; some @ bleached my eyebrows and lashes."
Well that would be innocuous enough – if it were true. I suppose the expert explanation sounds plausible, but I'm skeptical.
Call me a non-Belieber.
*Your Memory May Vary.
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