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Uncommon Knowledge: When did the asperand get its fresh start?

Alphabet Factory Blocks | $70 | UncommonGoodsCalled “snail” by the Italians and “monkey tail” by the Dutch, the asperand is now as much a part of our online lives as scrolling through newsfeed and untagging really unflattering pictures of ourselves from our last trip to the beach. However, the swirling symbol was pretty close to going extinct. First documented in 1536, the asperand was used by merchants to denote units, and was widely used in early commerce. The machine age was not friendly to our little symbol-that-could, though, and it was omitted from the first typewriters. It came back with a vengeance in 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was trying to figure out a way to connect computer programmers. He needed a way to address a message from one computer to the next and it needed to include the user’s name, as well as the name of their computer, which could service many users. The symbol linking those two elements could not already be widely used in operating systems. He considered using the exclamation point, comma, and equal sign, but ironically, it was the @’s unpopularity that made it the ubiquitous symbol we all know today.

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Written by Nathan

Nathan is a copywriter, who helps create our product descriptions as well as our weekly emails. He is also a nationally award-winning musical theater writer, whose work includes an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver. Nathan has also been a classical violinist, tutored Kazakhstani jewelers in entrepreneurship, created large-scale games played across entire city blocks, served as a missionary in South Korea, conducted experiments in sonoluminescence, co-founded an exotic fruit-growing business, was a theater critic for Tucson Weekly, and as a teenager composed a women’s jazz quartet that is currently performed around the world.

4 Comments

  1. Sue Staats

    Nathan – I think you’re confusing the ampersand (&) with the “at” symbol (@) The ampersand evolved from an abbreviation used in Latin for the word “et,” which means “and.” You’re quite right, though, that the @ symbol was originally used by merchants to indicate units. It’s just not an ampersand.

  2. cassie

    Thanks for commenting Sue and Frances! This post is about the history of the asperand (the “at” symbol) not the ampersand (the “and” symbol). While the words asperand and ampersand do sound alike, luckily the symbols don’t look alike and are used in very different ways. (Though an & in an email address would be a delightful addition, typographically!)

    Cassie | UncommonGoods

  3. Kathy

    Since the term that is used here for @ is not a commonly-agreed on word, Nathan should have defined the word at the start, explaining that term he was writing about is one of several terms used for @. It’s especially confusing because an ampersand is included in the image but the @ is not.

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