What’s up with @?

The symbol '@' as a sign is invariable and open to interpretation.

WrittenBy:Harkirat Kaur
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The symbol @ has now become the very fabric of life for all around the world. While we tweet, tag or search for people, places or things in the cyberspace, @ always comes handy. The sign is older than we think. Some scholars believe it was invented over 1,300 years ago, as a way to minimise the Latin word ‘ad’– which means ‘at’ or ‘to’ or ‘toward’— into a single pen stroke. 


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Now, the symbol has become so important that we feel a need to make sense of it, thus inspiring its own pop culture. Germans, Poles, and South Africans call it ‘a monkey’s tail’ in their language. Chinese think of it as a little mouse, Italians and French, a snail. For the Russians, it symbolises a dog, while the Finnish believe the symbol is motivated by a curled-up sleeping cat.

The sign as a mediating symbol has recently started to express gender neutrality in the Spanish language. Its ability to negotiate between man and machine, or convey the current spectrum of gender classification from its traditional one, has only expanded its scope of use – as a tool to express a community’s evolving social and technological relationships through new patterns of interaction.

Chinese e-mail users sound out the English word ‘at’ to point the said sign, with a drawn-out ‘T’ that sounds like “ai ta,” or “love him,” to Mandarin speakers.

Such is the symbol’s impact in people’s lives that a couple in China tried naming their baby @. They claimed that the character addressed their love for the child. The name stands out, especially, in Mandarin Chinese that has no alphabets and instead uses thousands of multi-stroke characters to represent words.  

In 2010, Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Department of Architecture and Design acquired the symbol @ to be a part of its permanent collection. Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design recalls media calling up the department for images of the symbol, to which she responded by saying, “please look at your computer’s keyboard.” The instance suggests its belongingness to the public domain and how we all own it—or conversely, no one does. Just like the English language or Einstein’s e=mc2. 

Antonelli narrates the process on a blog on MoMA’s website: “The acquisition of @ relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world.”

She has inaugurated the acquisition of various objects that were too big or were in the air like the Boeing 747’s or the buildings, satellites, and video games like Pacman as part of MoMA’s collection. @ marks itself as the first one from the public domain. She says, “Contemporary art, architecture, and design can take on unexpected manifestations, from digital codes to Internet addresses and sets of instructions that can be transmitted only by the artist.”

It is one of the things that were first invented for one purpose, but are used for another, as Philip Pullman demonstrated once in his show – Museum of curiosity. Back in 1971, when American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson created the world’s first e-mail system, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard. Within a few months, Tomlinson rediscovered it, giving it a new meaning and elevating it into a defining symbol of the computer age. Faced with the problem that emails could only be sent to users on the same server, he adopted the @ to allow cross-server email routing, via an email address (like contactus@thepatriot.in). Tomlinson’s powerful act of design forever changed the sign’s significance and function. 

The reuse of a pre-existing, ancient symbol, that was readily available on the keyboard yet mostly underutilised, resolved a functional issue brought on by a revolutionary technological innovation that is the Internet. It is, by all means, an act of extraordinary design. Without a need to redesign keyboards or discard old ones, Tomlinson gave @ a completely new function. His unintended role as a designer is acknowledged and celebrated by MoMA’s acquisition towards new methods of the current times, embedded in the arts of the past. @ as a sign is invariable and open to interpretation, yet remains the same in its essence. Without declaring itself as a work of design, it reveals its design power through use.

This article was first published in the Patriot.


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