How much poetry can a punctuation mark inspire? All over the globe, ever since the @ sign became a universal element in e-mail, the world's languages have been making it their own by giving it evocative local names. This once-humble little symbol has generated an international blizzard of imagery in the form of homely metaphor and cozy simile. That isn't true everywhere, of course. We who speak English call it by the flat-footed names "at" or (in the dictionaries) "commercial at." And those who use French, Spanish and Portuguese get along with variations on a dull old weights-and-measures term from Spanish, arroba.
But elsewhere in the world, the @ has called forth a bizarre collection of terms. Many of the e-mails that have arrived since I discussed this subject in the Post two weeks ago have demonstrated how the @ has challenged the inventiveness of national imaginations. The world's e-mailers, in their spontaneously creative way, have developed, sifted and finally adopted an abundance of appellations, almost always based on what the sign looks like rather than what it does.
When people whose background is in English contemplate the @, we see a million commercial transactions stretching back through the centuries. For our ancestors, it expressed the price of goods, like apples or nails. But until it became part of e-mail, the @ was unknown in most parts of the world. For hundreds of millions of people, it arrived in the 1980s and 1990s as a fresh visual symbol demanding a suitable name.
Usually, its shape made them think of food or animals. They saw pastry, fish, ducks, dogs, cats, worms, snails, mice, elephants, monkeys. Other terms that have shown up include vortex, whorl, whirlpool and cyclone, to cite four that have been used occasionally without catching on as national standards.
I suggested we call it the Tomlinson, after Ray Tomlinson, an engineer who is reported to have used it in the first-ever e-mail, which he both sent and received in a Cambridge, Mass., lab in 1972. This hasn't met with universal approval, partly because there are already so many competing terms around the world, partly because some think Tomlinson has too many syllables, and partly because Ray Tomlinson's claim to priority has been challenged. Bob Morris of Carleton University in Ottawa argues that the Tomlinson story (common in computer circles) couldn't be right; Morris says the @ was in use in digital language as early as 1970, in a system developed by legendary computer architect C. Gordon Bell. (Bell, when contacted at Microsoft's San Francisco research centre, couldn't verify that recollection.) Another reader is convinced that at least two companies in Toronto alone had e-mail technology before 1972.
One of my readers, Liz Zetlin of Markdale, Ont., has been on the case for a while. She's been poking through the Web sites of the world to learn how various countries name the @ and how the names reflect the cultures that invent them. At the Banff Writing Studio in Alberta she's been working on a poem on this subject as part of what she calls The Punctuation Field. She refers to the "fat little alpha" that wakes each day/to begin its long/journey, thinks/it could become a sea shell, thinks/it will reach the end. The Punctuation Field is not only a poem in progress; it's also, curiously, a meadow in progress, a poem made literal. In a former hayfield near Markdale, she's mowing into the wild grasses a series of viewable-from-the-air punctuation marks, including the ampersand, the emoticon for irony (:]) and, yes, the @.
After Jane Farrow read my piece on the lack of a good word in English, she turned the matter over to the audience of Wanted Words, a feature she does for This Morning on CBC Radio. She regularly asks listeners to create words that don't exist for objects or situations or even seasons that need them. (What do you call the long, cold, dark Canadian period between New Year's and Good Friday? Forevuary. What do you call someone whose plants always die prematurely? Hortikillturist.)
Her listeners responded to the @ issue with characteristic enthusiasm and inventiveness. Four of them argued for words similar to ampersand (atpersand, appersat, ampersat or ampersend) while others produced graphic imagery, all based on circles and curls. One listener suggested a poetic Canadian vegetable (fiddlehead), another suggested a fried egg, another a lariat. My favourite came from a rancher near Kamloops, B.C., who wants to call it the Circle-A.
The loop that surrounds the letter (put there originally by medieval monks to create a short form for the Latin ad) looks to some like a monkey's tail. So Germans, Bulgarians, Netherlanders, Poles, Serbs, speakers of Afrikaans and writers of Esperanto all use terms that include the word monkey. To some Scandinavians it looks like the trunk of an elephant, which is snabel in various languages. So Denmark, Norway and Sweden call it the "snabel-a." In Italian and Korean it's called a snail. In Mandarin it's a mouse, in Russian a little dog, in Greek a duck, in Finnish a cat's tail. The Thais and the Hungarians see it as a worm. The Turks call it a rose. Many of these have been assembled by Scott Heron, a Cleveland technical writer and amateur linguist, on his Web site, www.herodios.com.
Paula Tyroler of Laurentian University in Sudbury reports that in the Czech Republic they call it the zavinac, the word for a rollmop, a pickled herring wrapped around a dill pickle and secured by a toothpick. The word in Israel is "strudel," because the @ looks like strudel. Kaila Cramer of Thornhill, Ont., informed me that in Israel, when giving an e-mail address over the phone, you say something like "scohen strudel netvision dot net dot il."
Bent Christensen, a Danish-Canadian reader in Oakville, Ont., tells me that while he can't really explain why, "there appears to be a special interest in this subject in Denmark." He's found at least a dozen Danish Web sites discussing the various terms for @, one of which he kindly translated for me. He's also informed me that in Denmark they give out a prize every year for achievement in Web sites. They call it the Golden @.