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The symbol @ is frequently used to represent two main things; the word at (particularly in market pricing) and in e-mail addresses.

Where does the symbol come from?

Wikipedia suggests the following origin theories;

  • One theory is that the symbol developed as a mercantile shorthand symbol of "each at"—the symbol resembling a small "a" inside a small "e"—to distinguish it from the different "at" (symbolised by the mere letter "a") or "per."

  • Another theory is that medieval monks abbreviated the Latin word ad (at, toward, by, about) next to a numeral. A theory concerning this graphic puts forward the idea that the form derives from the Latin word ad, using the older form of lower case 'd' : ∂, which persists as the partial derivative symbol.

  • Another theory is that it derives from the Norman French "à" meaning "at" in the "each" sense, i.e. "2 widgets à £5.50 = £11.00". It is also used like this in Modern French, Swedish or Czech; in this view, the at-symbol is a stylised form of à that avoids raising the writing hand from the page in drawing the symbol.

Is any of those theories correct?

Can you provide some proper citations, as the Wikipedia article is practically barren?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 18 '16 at 2:23
  • Wikipedia strangely discerns between the symbol origin and its usage origin. In the directly following paragraph the story Athanasius describes is actually linked. – Helmar Nov 1 '16 at 14:23
  • @Helmar - yes, you're right. I actually avoided even looking at the Wikipedia article before writing most of my answer, because I just assumed all the info from Wikipedia was in the question. But then I read the Wikipedia article and discovered this odd bifurcation. Basically, there are no sources for the supposed "origins" mentioned in the question, while there are actual links given in Wikipedia to similar sources to what I quote. I tried poking around for evidence for the claims made in the question, but I didn't see anything more than speculation; no actual historical sources cited. – Athanasius Nov 7 '16 at 3:19
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It seems the best current scholarly theory is "none of the above." The theories cited in the question have been proposed by various scholars, but there is little evidence to back any of them up.

However, another proposal came out of the work of Italian scholar Giorgio Stabile in the late 1990s. (The story is basically told here. Unfortunately, while there are a number of corroborating media stories carrying this information, I couldn't find a more scholarly publication, though there are a few interviews or short pieces by Stabile on the internet mostly in Italian.)

Stabile started by tracing the names of the symbol in various languages and discovered that many seem to use terms that just describe the shape in some colorful way, employing words that translate as things like "elephant's trunk" or "pig's tail" or "worm" or "rose."

But there was one pattern of names: French arobase, Spanish and Portuguese arroba, and Italian anfora, which are all archaic terms for old measurement units. (These are more formal names; French and Italian also use informal terms like escargot and chiocciola for the symbol, both meaning "snail.") The Italian word is related to the Latin amphora, which was both a name for the storage jars and a standard unit of measure. The French, Spanish, and Portuguese words ultimately come through Arabic from al rub', meaning "one fourth" (of a hundredweight). All of these words referred to general measurement units in the Renaissance.

The final link for Stabile came with a discovery of a 1536 letter sent from Seville to Rome by a merchant Francesco Lapi, in which Lapi discussed the price for amphoras of wine. In his letter, Lapi used the @ symbol as an abbreviation for amphora (or anfora). (A scan of the document can be found here.)

The swooping curve around the "a" fits in well with similar curved gestures in Italian handwriting and letterforms of the time. Stabile's claim was corroborated in 2009 with the discovery by Jorge Romance of a similar use of the symbol in Castilian documents from the 1440s, referencing an arroba of wheat. As noted in this latter link, the symbol has also been seen in one earlier occurrence in a 1345 Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle, where it merely substitutes for the "A" in the word "Amen." This use has apparently not so far been connected to the others (and may have been merely a scribal ornament around a letter of a prominent word).

Thus, Stabile's theory postulates that the @ symbol originally came into use as a Spanish and Italian abbreviation for the standard measurement units of arroba or anfora, which explains its name in modern European languages. The use apparently spread through Southern Europe, where @ eventually came to stand in for a generic mercantile unit, leading to our modern use of the sign to mean a sort of "units at [price]."

Stabile's theory doesn't explain precisely why a circle was initially used around the "a" in the abbreviation, though Romance's manuscript findings seem to show an earlier non-standardized use in the 1400s where the "a" was simply ornamented in various ways (including incomplete circles). But the corroboration between modern language terms for the symbol and historical manuscript evidence makes a stronger case for this origin than any competing theories so far.


Just as an addendum, I assumed the question is mostly about the early history of the symbol before it was appropriated into e-mail addresses and such. But since that meaning is also discussed in the question, the story of how @ was incorporated into typewriters and then was chosen by Ray Tomlinson as the standard e-mail symbol is discussed in the first link above and its counterpart here.

  • "French and Italian also use informal terms like escargot and chiocciola for the symbol, both meaning 'snail.'" Fascinating. Koreans refer to the @ symbol as "golbaeng-i," which is a kind of snail (whelk). I chalk it up to coincidence (or more accurately, another culture independently making the same @ symbol-shape/snail connection). – pyobum Oct 31 '16 at 5:20
  • Very impressive! A show of proper SE research. – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 31 '16 at 7:11
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    I've learned in elementary school (in Guatemala) that the name of that symbol is "arroba". An "arroba" is 25 pounds. – Juan M Oct 31 '16 at 20:04
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    @JuanM - thanks for the additional data. Yes, as noted, the word literally means "one fourth" of a hundredweight, which would be 25 pounds. Historically, the actual weight (or volume) of the measure tended to vary somewhat from place to place, but it's usually around that size. – Athanasius Oct 31 '16 at 22:34
  • Have you found other cases where a letter-as-unit was circled to set it apart from its common use a a single-letter word? It seems a reasonable progression to me that using 'a' as a unit would rapidly produce ambiguities that would prompt decoration to set it apart, and then, if the decoration is a circle, that a ligature would form to allow the writer to use a single stroke to form both the letter and the circle. See also symbols like © and ®, circled for clarity. – Aiken Drum Nov 2 '16 at 13:00

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