A Natural History of the @ Sign
Part One: The many names of @

What do they call @ in...?

    The "@" symbol. . .
    used by grocers and accountants throughout the English-speaking world to indicate a rate, or cost per unit, as in "10 gal @ $3.95/gal" [ten gallons at three dollars and ninety-five cents per gallon] has become the de facto delimiter in e-mail addresses, separating the user's name from the domain name.

    Although the change from at meaning "for a given amount per" to at meaning "in a specified (electronic) location" comes fairly naturally to English speakers, it does not for native speakers of other languages, for whom neither "at" nor @ meant anything until e-mail came around.

    Indeed, a fair number of internet users live in countries that don't use the same alphabet English does (Japan, China, former republics of the Soviet Union including Russia, and Arabic-speaking countries, to name some major ones), and where the keyboards did not conveniently include the @ character until after it's widespread use on the internet made it a necessity.

    As a result, while in some languages @ is simply called "at," in others, a wide variety of interesting nicknames have been developed for this little symbol. Most are based on the shape of the character, others are more abstract. Some are original and unique, others are derived from other languages. Some have ancient antecedents, others are still "works in progress." (Internet users in Sri Lanka are even now trying to decide what to call @). In some countries, a variety of ideosyncratic names have appeared simultaneously, while in others, government beauracracies are charged with selecting an "official" term.

    Metaphors range from animals (snail, worm, little dog, horse) to body parts (elephant's trunk, monkey's tail, cat's foot, pig's ear) to food (rollmops herring, strudel, cinnamon roll, pretzel). This article includes a sampling of the many names of @, world-wide.

    Afrikaans [South Africa]
    Afrikaans is spoken mainly by the decendents of Dutch settlers in South Africa. In Afrikaans, some people have begun to call @ "aapstert," [monkey's tail], also a term of endearment for someone who's made a silly mistake. Note that Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch, where @ is called, among other things, "apestaart" meaning, of course, monkey's tail.

    The various dialects of Arabic are, of course, written in Arabic script, using a very different alphabet from English, French, and other European languages. The @ sign does not appear on manual Arabic keyboards at all, but it is found on dual--English and Arabic-- computer and word processor keyboards. As such, the only use of @ in Arabic is in e-mail addresses. Many people do not even notice it on the keyboard, and do not have a name for it. Most Arab speaking e-mailers either call @ "at" or translate English "at" into Arabic, calling it "fi."

    However, one person called it "othon" [ ear ]. Another simply called it "a."

    Cantonese [Hong Kong]
    Most things relating to computers and electronics in Hong Kong, until recently a British Crown Colony, are heavily influenced by native speakers of English. In Hong Kong, most people call it "the at sign" pronounced as in England and the U.S.

    Catalan [Catalonia (Spain)]
    Most people call it "arrova" (the "rr" is rolled and the "v" is pronounced like a very soft English "b"). In Spanish, the same symbol and name are used to indicate a unit of weight, (1 arrova = approximately 25 U.S. pounds). Like many Spanish terms, this one comes originally from Arabic.

    Czech (Czech Republic)
    In Czech, @ is called zavinac (pronounced ZAHV-in-ach), meaning "rollmops," or pickled herring. Perhaps the shape suggests herring packed tightly in a jar!

    In Danish it's either called "alfa-tegn" [alpha-sign] or "snabel," [elephant's trunk]. Obviously the former is the more formal useage, but the latter term is used most often when refering to e-mail addresses.

    The @ sign is also sometimes called "grisehale" [pig's tail].

    The imaginations of Dutch speaking people seem to have worked overtime to come up with names for this little symbol. The original name was "een a met een slinger" [an a with a swing ], but was soon more popularly called either "apestaart" or the diminutive "apestaartje" [(little) monkey's tail] or "slingeraap" [swinging monkey"]

    Other names attested:

    • "a-krol" or "a-krul," [curly a].
    • "slinger-atje" [little swing a]
    • "apeklootje" [little monkey's testicle].

    Since nearly everyone in the Netherlands also speaks English, and as more and more people go on-line, the English term is increasingly recognized.

    Some English speakers call @ "commercial-a" or "commercial-at." Also heard in English:

    • mercantile symbol
    • commercial symbol
    • scroll, or scroll-a
    • arobase
    • each
    • about
    • vortex
    • whorl
    • whirlpool
    • cyclone
    • snail
    • schnable
    • cabbage

    FORTH. In the computer programming language FORTH, @ means "fetch."

    (Net)Hack. The old (1960's mainframe-based) computer game Hack, now called NetHack, uses ASCII characters to indicate various "dungeons and dragons" - type creatures. For example, a capital "K" represents a Kobold. Evidently, there are some people who use @ online to indicate a human being, as the game does.

    Many Finnish terms for @ are connected with cats. Not content with naming the sign for what it looks like, Finnish names it for what it looks like sounds like. In addition to "kissanhnta [cat's tail], "miau," "miumau," and "miuku" are all "miau merkki" [meow marks] in Finnish. Other terms from Finnish include "apinanhanta" [a monkey's tail], or "hiirenhanta" [mouse's tail]. Some "computer people" use the English word "at."

    In French, @ is called "arobase." Probably derived from Spanish "arroba," the word has no other meaning; it is simply the name of the symbol. It is also referred to as "un a commercial" [business a], "a enroule" [coiled a], and sometimes "escargot"[snail] or "petit escargot" [little snail].

    Frisian (Friesland, Frisian Islands)
    This germanic language is spoken on the Frisian Islands in the North Sea off the coast of Holland, Germany, and Denmark. In Frisian @ is called either "aapke" [little monkey] or "apesturtsje" [little monkey's tail].

    In German, @ is most often called either "Affenschwanz" [monkey's tail] or "Klammeraffe" [hanging monkey]. This is also a term of zoological classification, for various South American monkeys, including the spider monkey.

    Some people call it the "Ohr" [ear].

    In modern Greek, the equivalent Greek expression " sto" is used, a direct translation of the English term [a].

    In Hebrew, it's most often either a "shablul" or "shablool"[snail] or a " shtrudl" [strudel, that is, the pastry]. In both cases, it's something that is rolled up.

    Hungarians evidently don't think much of e-mail, as they've elected to call the @ sign "kukac" pronounced KOO-kots [worm or maggot].

    In Indonesian, @ doesn't really have a name. It's simply pronounced [ uh ] in e-mail addresses, like "username-uh-company-dot-com."

    Italians call @ "chiocciola" pronounced "kee-AH-cho-la" [the snail], and sometimes, "a commerciale" [business a].

    Japanese borrows words freely from foreign languages, though usually with a distinctly Japanese pronunciation. (For example, English [baseball] is rendered [beisiboru]. Japanese accounting and computer people normally call @ "atto maaku" ["at" mark].

    Many Koreans call it "dalphaengi" [snail].

    The "official" name for @ in Lithuanian is "comercial et," but most people call it "the e-mail sign" (in Lithuanian, of course). Some Lithuanian e-mailers have confused @ with &, calling it "ir" [and].

    Mandarin Chinese (Taiwan)
    In Taiwan Mandarin Chinese, @ is called "xiao lao-shu" [little mouse] or "lao shu-hao" [mouse sign]. It is also called "at-hao" [at sign] or "lao shu-hao" [mouse sign].

    In Norwegian, @ is called either "grisehale" [pig's tail] or "kro/llalfa" [curly alpha]. In academic circles, however, the English term "at" is widely used.

    In Poland most e-mailers call @ "malpa" [monkey].

    Other terms: "kotek" [little cat] and"ucho s'wini" [pig's ear].

    NOTE: What does the mouse say? The mouse says "click?"

    In Portuguese, it's called "arroba," as in Spanish. The symbol is used to indicate a unit of weight with the same name ( 1 arroba = 25 U. S. pounds). Like many Spanish terms, this one comes originally from Arabic.

    In Romanian, @ is called "la," a direct translation of English "at."

    In Russian, the "official" term for @ is "a kommercheskoe" [commercial a], but it is usually called "sobachka" [little dog or "doggie"].

    Other terms:

    • obezjana [the monkey]
    • pljushka [a Russian pastry]

    A variety of terms show up in Serbian. "Majmun" [monkey] is the root of several. This word is borrowed from Turkish. "majmun" [monkey] "majmunski rep" [monkey tail] "majmunsko-a" [monkey-ish a] "ludo-a" [crazy a] "et" [ a ] adapted from English.

    Slovak (Slovakia)
    In Slovak, like Czech, @ is called "zavinac" (pronounced ZAHV-in-ach), meaning "rollmops," or pickled herring.

    The word in Slovene is "afna." Perhaps this is a loan word from German, where the mark is called, among other things, "affenschwanz" [monkey's tail].

    There is a similar word in Slovenian, "afna" meaning "a woman who overdresses, applies too much make-up, etc."

    In Spanish, it's called "arroba." The symbol is used to indicate a unit of weight with the same name ( 1 arroba = 25 U. S. pounds). Like many Spanish terms, this one comes originally from Arabic.

    E-mailers in Sweden have the greatest variety of terms available for refering to @. The official term recommended by the Svenska Spreknemnden (The Swedish Language Board) is "snabel-a" [trunk-a, or "a with an elephant's trunk], and this is still the most common. At one time, the board attempted to introduce a more serious name, "at-tecken" [at-sign] but it didn't really catch on.

    Another imaginative name sometimes heard in Swedish is "kanelbulle" [a kind of cinnamon roll]. Other candidates:

    • "apsvans" [monkey's tail]
    • "elefantora" [an elephant's ear]
    • "kattfot" [cat-foot]
    • "kattsvans" [cat's tail]
    • "kringla [pretzel]

    Thai does not have an official name for @, but some people call it " 'ai tua yiukyiu" [the wiggling worm-like character].

    Most Turkish e-mailers call @ "kulak" [ear] or even "Ohr" ["ear" in German]. Some have suggested calling @ "at" which sounds the same, of course, but in Turkish means "horse."

    The Linguist List,
    The Pronunciation Guide, ~sburke/ stuff/ pronunciation-guide.txt
    380 Internet tips & trucs, by Henk Ellermann, Amsterdam 1995
    The Oxford English Dictionary

    1997 Scott Herron, except as indicated.