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At Sign (@)

The at sign, @, normally read aloud as "at", also commonly called the at symbol or commercial at, is originally an accounting and commercial invoice abbreviation meaning "at a rate of" (e.g. 7 widgets @ £2 = £14).

What is the at-sign (@)?

The at-sign (@)—pronounced "at"—is a symbol that accidentally came into use in the late 19th century for accounting and invoicing purposes. For nearly a century, the symbol was primarily used as shorthand for the phrase "at the rate of," as in the following example: 5 bananas @ .40 cents per pound = .75 cents. Since the 1990s, the symbol has been most widely recognized as the universal "at"-prefix for email accounts.

Using the at-sign (@) in writing

Anyone who has ever had an email address is readily familiar with the at-sign, which is used to specify that an account holder is at a given server. With an email address like spark(@)host.com, the at-sign confirms that the user "spark" has an account with the email server host.com. The user(@)host.com format for email addresses dates back to 1971, when it was formulated by Ray Tomlinson of BBN Technologies.

Since the symbol technically isn't a punctuation mark, the lack of any proper name for the symbol has been a source of frustration in the literary world, where some writers have attempted to either adopt or coin new words to name the symbol. Adoptions of the French word arobase and the Iberian arroba have been tried as possible names for the symbol, as have the neologisms "asperand" and "apetail," though none of these have gained widespread acceptance.

History of the term

Not much is known about how the at-sign originated. Before the days of printing, the symbol was used by bookmaking monks as a shortcut in the often painstaking process of transcribing. The at-sign—in which the two letters that form the word "at" could be replaced with a single pen stroke (@)—was one of many symbols that monks used to ease the labor of copying texts.

During the 16th century, the at-sign was used as a unit of measure—in lieu of the word amphora—for jar shipments of wines and spices from Italy. This particular usage has been credited for the common use of the at-sign for the purpose of measuring quantities.

The at-sign was omitted from most early typewriters; one notable exception was the No. 5 model from the Underwood Typewriter Company, which included the symbol on all of its post-1900 keyboard models. Since the advent of computers, the symbol has been a keyboard mainstay.

Some corporate websites post munged versions of member email addresses with the at-sign obscured as a way to prevent spam.

On Internet forms where discussions aren't organized into threads, the at-sign is often placed before the names of users when sending out replies or making call outs to certain individuals. For instance, if Juliette asks Emma a question on Saturday about hair-coloring products, but Emma doesn't see the question until Monday when it's 60 posts down the page, placing @Juliette before the reply will help bring it to Juliette's attention.

On microblogging sites like Twitter, the at-sign is placed in front of a user name (ex. @badhaircomedian) to send out public replies; the @badhaircomedian handle will also serve as a link to said user's profile. On Internet Relay Chat channels, the at-sign appears before the handle of anyone with operator status.

In Iberian countries where many words end in "o" to denote masculine usage and "a" to denote feminine usage, the at-sign is now being used as a gender-neutral alternative.

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