Amphora – yes the @ sign has a name

The symbol @ is so commonly used today that most of us don’t even notice it. I’ve heard it being referred to as “at the rate of” and I didn’t think that that was its actual name. Which got me wondering on what its real name was, and how did it end up in our email addresses.

The origin of the symbol again goes back to the ingenious medieval scribes looking to make their job of scribing easier by finding shortcuts.  They may have used the symbol for the Latin word “ad” which means toward. It’s first known use though is where it was used to represent the words “each at” and the e and a being joined together to form the symbol. 

Ancient clay jars called Amphoras

Its first documented use, from where it also gets its name, was in 1536 when a Florentine wine merchant Francesco Lapi used the symbol @ for units of wine sold in clay jars or Amphoras. With this its use in commerce started and merchants started to use it to tell the price of each unit of the item being purchased – 10 loaves of bread @ $1, meaning total cost of $10. Its use in this manner in commerce continued until 1971, and perhaps it was this exclusive use in commerce that made it a good option for use in emails.

An Italian Merchant uses the @ symbol in 1536 (courtesy MOMA website)

The typewriters of 1800s did not even include the symbol in their keyboards. It was not until 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was looking for a way to start sending emails outside of his host environment, and into another host environment that he noticed the barely used @ key on the keyboard of his computer. He realized it was barely used which made it easier for him to choose it. He used it to separate his name from the host network name – and changed the history of the barely used Amphora.

With this decision, the @ symbol was rescued from obscurity, and a life in history books. By using it as the bridge between individual and host network names, he made it the most important part of how humans connect and interact with each other in the digital world.

He Said What ‽

Sometimes an exclamation mark just does not suffice – neither does just a question mark – the two have to be used together for full impact of the incredulity and shock expressed by the question. For those times we have the interrobang. A perfect example of when an interrobang is required is when one girlfriend says to another – “He said what‽” or when you ask your family, “Who ate the last piece of cake‽”

The interrobang was first used by advertising agency owner Martin K. Specter when he used it in a TYPEtalks magazine article in 1962. The term itself is a combination of the Latin word for a rhetorical questions interrogatio, and the printer and proofreader’s slang for the exclamation mark, bang. The Remington typewriter included the interrobang key in its typewriter in 1968 – but sadly this very useful punctuation mark did not really gain much traction after the 1960s.

Interrogati+ Bang ?!

With its balance of excitement and outrage, and the prevalence of social media in our lives, I am surprised the interrobang has not caught on more, it seems to be a match made in heaven. Perhaps the time is right for the interrobang to rise again and take its rightful place in our shockaholic world.

The 27th Alphabet

The beauty of language is that it is always changing – it molds itself to fit the needs of the times. Over the ages, as we have gone from using scribes who wrote and copied everything by hand, to the printing press, and now to word-processing tools, it is not just language – the alphabet too has changed.

The much loved and decorated ampersand is one such character that was once an alphabet and is today considered punctuation (in Unicode) and a symbol. In fact it was, for a while, the 27th alphabet of the English language.

Ampersand traces its origins to the Roman scribes.

The ampersand traces its origin – as does so much else – to Ancient Romans, specifically Ancient Roman scribes. The scribes would write in cursive in order to speed up their work and when they wrote et – Latin for “and” – they started joining the two letter together and formed the ligature &. So the e and the t – hastily written started to look like the symbol or glyph &.   

The ligature was then adopted by the printing press – in fact the Gutenberg press had 292 such glyphs. For years, the glyph & was the 27th letter of the alphabet – so when students recited the alphabet they would end with X, Y, Z and per se and – which literally translates to (the character) & by itself (is the word) and. The “and per se and” got corrupted and started to be pronounced as ampersand – and the name stuck even when it was removed from the alphabet (sometime in the mid to late 19th century).

Ampersands are most commonly used today in names of companies – AT&T, Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry’s, H&M are some that come to mind instantly.

Next up….. Interrobangs!!

Percontation Point

Earlier this week I learned about another wonderful punctuation mark that seems to have fallen out of use – or I should say never really caught on – Percontation point or the Rhetorical Question mark. It might be used most appropriately in – are you crazy – where clearly the speaker is not expecting a response.

The backward question mark.

In the late 16th century, English printer Henry Denham was concerned that the unsavvy readers of English may not catch on to the fact that the question did not require a response and proposed the use of a backward question mark to indicate a rhetorical question. It didn’t really catch on and it fell out of use completely by the 17th century.

I can see it being quite useful on Twitter where one often doesn’t know whether a response is required or not. It also has found use in art work and tshirts.