Issue 202, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Devon:

What's the story on the @ sign?  What is it really called, and where does it come from?

That's a great question, and though it's not really an etymological question, we will try to tackle it and somehow get some etymology in there at the same time.

The symbol is called variously "commercial a/at", "at sign", "at symbol", or "asperand" in English.  Asperand appears to be a relatively recent creation, formed perhaps due to the occasional erroneous naming of @ as "ampersand".  (See our discussion of ampersand.)  The OED (on CD-ROM) does not list asperand.

Use of the @ sign in e-mail originated in 1971, when Ray Tomlinson of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (also given as BBN Technologies) chose the symbol to separate name from domain in one of the first e-mail systems.   The following is an excerpt from an article in Darwin Magazine:

One of the decisions that Tomlinson had to make as he experimented with e-mail was how to distinguish between messages that were headed out onto the network and those that were addressed to users in the same office. He studied the keyboard for a symbol that didn't occur naturally in people's names and that wasn't a digit. The designation for mailboxes on remote computers that he came up with was the now ubiquitous @ symbol. "It designates a place, and it's the only preposition on the keyboard," he points out. Though it turned out to be a decision with far-reaching impact, at the time Tomlinson gave it only "30 to 40 seconds of thought."

Nowadays the @ sign is, as the article puts it, ubiquitous.  Where does it come from?

There has been much speculation and at least a little bit of research about the symbol. Ultimately, it is a version of ā, which denotes the abbreviation of a word beginning with the letter a.  This was a common method of denoting abbreviations in Medieval manuscripts, which were written and copied by hand.  Which word beginning with a the Medieval writers or copiers had in mind, however, is debatable.  Two of the suggestions have been the Latin preposition ad "about" (when used with numbers) and the Greek preposition ana "at the rate of" (again, when used with numbers).  However, there is no evidence to confirm these suggestions.

Amphora.  Click to follow the link.A more recent suggestion has been made by a Roman historian, Giorgio Stabile.  He believes he can link the symbol to a banking document of Venice from 1536.  There the @ stands for "amphora".   This is very interesting, suggesting that the @ originally referred to a specific unit of weight or volume.  That meaning persists with arroba in Spanish and Portuguese, the weight associated with it being about 25 lbs.  Arroba is also the Spanish/Portuguese word for @.  You may note a few other Romance languages that use a cognate of this word to refer to @ in the list below.  The amphora, by the way, was originally a two-handled jug used for storing wine or oil.  It derives from Greek amphoreus, which is an elided form of amphiphoreus, formed from amphi "on both sides" (referring to the handles) + phoreus "bearer", ultimately from pherein "to bear", source also of Christopher "Christ bearer", among others.  Arroba and the related Romance words derive from Arabic arrub "the quarter of a quintal", formed from al "the" + rub "quarter".  A quintal is a hundredweight, by the way, from Latin centenarius "of one hundred" via Arabic qintar.

There, we got some etymology in! Now for the @ in various languages:

Arabic: at (borrowed from English), fi "at"

Cantonese: at

Catalán: arrova (cognate with arroba)

Czech/Slovak: zavinac "rollmops (a rolled fillet of herring)"

Danish: snabel-a "a with an elephant's trunk" or, less common, grisehale "pig's tail"

Dutch: at (borrowed from English), apestaart/apestaartje "monkey tail" (the -je form is diminutive)

Estonian: kommertsmärk "commercial sign"

Farsi: at sign (borrowed from English)

Finnish: kissanhäntä "cat's tail", miau, miukumauku - both onomatopoeic references to cats (meow)

French: arobase (cognate with arroba), escargot "snail", a commercial "commercial a", a enroule "coiled a"

Frisian: apesturtsje "monkey's tail", aapke "little monkey"

German: Klammeraffe "spider monkey (literally "clinging monkey"), Ohr "ear", Affenschwanz (Zurich) "monkey's tail"

Greek: sto "at" (as ston for a masculine word following, or stin for a feminine word following); at sign (borrowed from English)

Hebrew: shablul "snail, strudel", strudel "rolled pastry", at (borrowed from English)

Hungarian: kukac "worm, maggot"

Icelandic: att

Indonesian: a

Italian: chiocciola "snail", a commerciale "commercial a"

Japanese: atto maku from English "at mark"

Korean: dalphaengi "snail"

Lithuanian: commercial et "commercial a"

Mandarin: xiao lao shu "little mouse" or lao shu hao "mouse sign"

Norwegian: grisehale "pig's tail", at, krøllalfa "curly alpha"

Polish: małpa "monkey", ucho swini "pig's ear", at, ogon "tail"

Romanian: la "at"

Russian: sobachka "little dog", A kommercheskoe "commercial a"

Serbian: majmun "monkey", majmunsko a "monkeyish a", majmunski rep "monkey's tail", ludo a "crazy a", et "at"

Slovenian: afna (thought to come from the German word for @, which means "monkey")

Spanish/Portuguese: arroba "25 lb measure of weight"

Swedish: apsvans "monkey's tail", kanelbulle "cinnamon roll", snabel-a "elephant's trunk a", kringla "pretzel", kattsvans "cat's tail", kattfot "cat's foot", elefantora "elephant's ear", at-tecken "at sign"

Thai: "the wiggling worm-like character"

Turkins: kulak "ear".

This fascinating list was compiled on the Linguist List.

From kpico:

In discussing among my Japanese friends about the words of respect and self-humiliation in the Japanese language, someone raised the question about the English equivalents.  Specifically we would like to know the origin of the address sir.  Thank you in advance, sir.

Today sir is a respectful form of address for any man, but originally it was used to refer to a knight or baronet (late 13th century).  Sir's earlier form was sire, which also came to be used to refer to a lord or sovereign (late 13th century) and survives with only that meaning, albeit archaic, today.  The English word sire comes from Old French sire or cyre, derived from hypothetical popular Latin *seior, a corruption of senior "old".  One who became a knight had to earn the title, first working as a page and then a squire.  Once he was knighted, he commanded respect based on his age, wisdom, and exploits, and, so he was called sire or sir.

The more general use as a term of respect for any man arose gradually, becoming more common by the 17th century.  Sir was also once used to denote ordinary priests (used with the Christian name), and, with the surname, to address a Bachelor of Arts at some universities in Great Britain.  Those senses are now obsolete.

So, in summary, when you address someone as sir, you are etymologically addressing him as senior, or, figuratively, "wise" or "respectable one".  However, to most English speakers, you are simply being polite.

From Cary:

I was reading an article about border guards who track illegal immigrants when I came across the sentence, "Agents have found sign of people crawling across drags (long, chutelike impressions)..."  The author uses the word sign in this manner throughout the article.  Can the word sign in this sense be singular?

We are reminded of the movie Thunderheart (1992 - great movie, by the way), where the Crow Horse character (Graham Greene), at a crime scene, tells FBI agent Levoi (Val Kilmer), "You're steppin' on sign!"  Today we may think of old, grizzled, mountain-men tracker-types (or tribal cops!) using the word in this manner, but sign in this sense is relatively old, at least in the U.S.  The word with the meaning "trail or trace of wild animals, people, etc." dates from at least 1692.  Interestingly, the earliest quotations pertain to Indians.

We do have to say that the word signs would probably work just as well in the instance you cite.

From Jane:

I remember using the word cob as a child to mean "steal".  I cannot find a definition like this for the word cob in any dictionary.  Can you help?

Sure we can!  Cob is thought simply to be a variation of cop "to capture or catch" (1704) and "to steal" (1879).  There is also the phrase to cop it "to 'catch' it" or "to be scolded".  The OED thinks these senses may derive from cap "to arrest" (1589) and then, more broadly, "to seize".  And this is believed to derive from Old French caper "to seize", ultimately from Latin capere "to take".

Strangely, the OED offers no quotations for cob, but other sources date it to 1969, and it turns up in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) from 1980.  However, Eric Partridge (in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English) dates it to the 19th century as schoolboy slang.  Welshman Mike is not familiar with this use of the word.

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Last Updated 02/28/06 10:42 PM