There's A Monkey In Your Email

 
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A zoo of creatures, great and small, live in every email address. In China, you'll find a mouse. In Italy and France, a snail. In Germany, Holland and Poland it's a monkey. In Sweden and Denmark, an elephant's trunk. And in Finland, there's a cat, curled up and fast asleep. Visit Slovakia or the Czech Republic, and it's not an animal you'll see. Instead, it's rollmops, a tasty appetizer of a herring fillet wrapped around a pickle. And in Israel, all emails come with dessert—a piece of strudel. What are these surprises doing in our correspondence? We put them there, in our human desire to give names and meaning to a universal symbol that is neither a letter or a number.

 Miniature 19 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century (By permission: "PD-Art")

Miniature 19 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century (By permission: "PD-Art")

The earliest written record of the "@" sign comes from a 14th-century Bulgarian translation of the Byzantine Manasses Chronicle where it denotes the initial "a" in Amen. Medieval monks may have also written it into their manuscripts as an abbreviation for the Latin "ad," meaning towards. And in a 1536 letter, the Florentine merchant Francesco Lapi inquired about the price of an amphora (@) of wine. In all these cases, though intending different meanings, one can imagine a writer with flair and an energetic quill continuing the tail of his lower-case “a” up, back and around. By the 17th century, however, the @ was not only printed, but also seems to have acquired its now accepted commercial meaning of "at," as in "at the rate of."

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As typewriters became popular in the late 1800s, the @ symbol took up permanent residence on the keyboard, where it was known as the "commercial a." But it was rarely used by anyone other than accountants and bankers. Then, in 1971, the @ was rescued from obscurity by a 29-year-old computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson. In January of that year, Tomlinson was working on a small part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the Defense Department funded precursor to the internet. Tomlinson's team at subcontractor Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) was tasked with finding a way for computer terminals to send messages to other terminals through the network. In addition to the technical requirements of the system, each message needed a two-part address, consisting of the recipient and the terminal. And those two parts had to have a separator, a symbol that the Tenex computer operating system would not confuse with anything else. As Tomlinson glanced across the keys of his teletype machine, he looked for a character that wasn't often used. His eye fell on "@," which at the time, shared a key with the letter P. Later that afternoon he sent himself the world's first network email, addressed to: tomlinson@bbn-tenexa.

 (Flickr: Aileen Wang)

(Flickr: Aileen Wang)

The resurrection of the mostly obsolete @ as the defining symbol of the internet age is a triumph of individual and societal ingenuity. Tomlinson repurposed a logogram used for commerce and accounting but also kept the first part of its meaning ("at"), which fit its new role in specifying a location. And non-English speaking people, accepting the symbol's use but not understanding its English language meaning, created wonderfully descriptive names based on how it looks. Attempts have been made to standardize a name for the @ symbol (ampersat, asperand) but, fortunately, without much success.

Six thousand years ago people pressed cut reeds into damp clay tablets to share knowledge through pictures. In time, those reed impressions evolved into abstract marks that stood for sounds instead of images. Our modern phonetic language was born, but it's a testament to the richness of human expression that symbols still have the power to encapsulate an idea and connect the world. Now that the @ sign is part of modern life, perhaps it's time to take a new look at the asterism, fleuron and interrobang. I can't wait to see what humanity thinks they look like.

Published here on Forbes.com
January 31, 2018