669 - Digital Monkeys and Virtual Ducks: What to Call the @

The emergence of email catapulted the @ from typographical obscurity onto everybody's keyboard. Now the thing had to have a name fit for the digital age. 


Despite an early proliferation of alternatives (including each, vortex, whorl, cyclone, rose, cabbage and commercial at), English settled on at sign, or simply at. A nomenclature that gets top marks for brevity if not wit, and is becoming common in other languages as well now.

Which is a bit of a shame, as other European languages had a bit more fun with the curly letter. As this map shows, the @ is called by many different names across the 28 member states of the EU – mainly animals. The map also locates curious clusters in which these animals congregate, as if certain climates are more favourable to certain imaginary creatures than to others. Electronic elephants seem to thrive only in Scandinavia, for example.

The Romance languages by and large stuck to the inanimate arroba, the pre-digital name for the @ sign in Spanish and Portuguese. That name is derived from the Arabic ar-rub, meaning a quarter – in this case, a measure of weight: 25% of what a donkey (or mule) could carry. In Spain, the customary weight of an arroba was 25 pounds (11.5 kg), in Portugal, 32 pounds (14.7 kg). On the map, we see these weights proliferate throughout the Iberian peninsula, but also in France and French-speaking Belgium (as arobase).

Continental Europe is otherwise dominated by digital monkeys, due to the likeness of the @ to a monkey tail curling around a tree branch. In Germany and Austria, the symbol is referred to as Klammeraffe. The word translates as 'spider monkey' – an American genus of monkey noted for its long tail. Klammer on its own can mean 'bracket', 'staple' or 'paperclip'. The Klammeraffe shares Germany and Austria with the ordinary at. But in Poland, the małpa ('monkey') has the country to itself.

Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium refer to the @ as apenstaart(je), '(little) monkey tail'. In Luxembourgish, that becomes Afeschwanz.

The simian simile also proliferates throughout the Balkans: in Romanian, the @ is called coadă de maimuţă ('monkey tail'), in Bulgarian маймунка (maimunka – 'little monkey'). Croatians either use at or manki, a direct loan from the English 'monkey' (rather than the Croatian word for monkey, majmun). Their Slovenian neighbours call it an afna ('little monkey').

In Scandinavia, the elephant was seen as an apt metaphor for the curly a. In both Danish and Swedish, the @ is called snabel-a, with snabel meaning '[elephant's] trunk'. Their Finnish neighbours offically call it at-merkki, but colloquially either kissanhäntä ('cat's tail') or miukumauku ('meow-meow').

Czechs and Slovaks are united in their fishy metaphor for the @, finding in its curly appearance a similarity to zavináč, or 'rollmops' (rolled pickled herring fillets).

Italy, in a weird echo of post #599, is dominated by a chiocciola ('snail') riding up its boot. In Greece and Cyprus, the @ is rather enigmatically compared to a παπάκι (papaki – 'duckling').

The Baltics follow the English fashion, and say at. Not very imaginative perhaps, but less impalatable than the Hungarians, who say kukac, or 'maggot'.

That concludes all the fauna on this delightfully weird map, but here are some other remarkable names for @ in other languages:

  • Armenian: shnik ('puppy');
  • Chinese: xiao laoshu ('little mouse');
  • Japanese: naruto (after the tidal whirlpools in Naruto bay);
  • Kazakh: aykulak ('moon's ear');
  • Norwegian: krøllalfa ('curly alpha');
  • Russian: sobaka ('dog');
  • Ukrainian: vukho ('ear')

_______

Many thanks to János Vargha for sending in this map, found on this page of Europapont, a Hungarian-language online meeting place dedicated to European culture.

The 4 types of thinking talents: Analytic, procedural, relational and innovative

Understanding thinking talents in yourself and others can build strong teams and help avoid burnout.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to collaborate within a team and identify "thinking talent" surpluses – and shortages.
  • Angie McArthur teaches intelligent collaboration for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Do you have a self-actualized personality? Maslow revisited

Rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.

Personal Growth

Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
Surprising Science
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Keep reading Show less

Believe in soulmates? You're more likely to 'ghost' romantic partners.

Does believing in true love make people act like jerks?

Thought Catalog via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • Ghosting, or cutting off all contact suddenly with a romantic partner, is not nice.
  • Growth-oriented people (who think relationships are made, not born) do not appreciate it.
  • Destiny-oriented people (who believe in soulmates) are more likely to be okay with ghosting.
Keep reading Show less