April 2015
Volume 35 No. 3

April 2015
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Book Review: From Snail to Monkey, the Interesting History of @, Told in an Awkward Way

By Dom Serafini

In some 116 pocket-sized pages, Italian author Massimo Arcangeli explains to Italian readers the origin of and various names for the symbol @, possibly the world’s most famous and widely used symbol. Indeed, the author states that by 2010, it was used by two billion people worldwide.

The official title of the book (published by Rome-based Castelvecchi, 16.50 euro) is Biografia di una Chiocciola — Storia confidenziale di @, or in English, “Biography of a Snail — The Secret Story of @,” where “snail” is the English translation of the Italian version of “at.”

The author, a professor of Italian linguistics at the University of Cagliari, traces the origin of the @ symbol in Medieval times. We’ll later discover, however, that a “linguist” is more of a scientist than a novelist or a journalist — both of whom would tend to have more approachable prose.
The beginning of the book is not too amusing. One has to progress to page 16 in order to discover some interesting facts, like how in March 2010 the New York City Museum of Modern Art included @ among its collection.

Then it’s not until page 19 that we learn that the computer symbol @ was born in 1971 and was taken by the American engineer Ray Tomlinson from a rarely-used symbol in the telex located on the same key as the letter “P.” Arcangeli discovered that the symbol was taken from an American typewriter built in 1883 and that Tomlinson was working on the ARPANET project (which gave the basis for the Internet). However, the true electronic mail system was created in 1978 by Shiva Ayyadurai and perfected in 1982 by Abhay K. Bhushan. In e-mail language, @ is like saying “care-of” and it was given the binary code 1000000, or 64 in decimal numbers.

Unfortunately, the language used by Arcangeli to describe the evolution is very technical and unintelligible to laymen. The author would have provided a great service to the readers if he were able to explain it in simple, easily understood terms. Plus, in the initial chapters, the author intermixes different facts, which this reviewer is re-arranging in order to present them in a more logical way.

From page 27 to page 44 Arcangeli describes the history of the typewriter, and only on page 45 does he return to the @ symbol, which was introduced on the keyboard in 1889. After that he points out that in various parts of the world, the @ is called by names taken from the animal kingdom, like “snail” in the case of Italy and France; a small dog in Armenia, Uzbekistan and Russia; duck in Greece; mouse in China and Taiwan; worm in Hungary; monkey in Germany, and in Poland it’s called a cat.

In France, however, the official name is “arrobe,” which is a term that came from Spain in the 1500s where it was called “arroba” and referred to a unit of weight.

The author devotes close to 20 pages of the book to listing what the “at” is called in various parts of the world, but the numerous descriptions are very confusing, with unclear punctuation that adds to the guessing game in distinguishing what the @ symbol is called in the country in question.
According to professor Arcangeli, the @ evolved between the sixth and seventh century from the letter “a” before “d,” which in Latin spelled “ad” and, later on, in English became “at” and called “ampersand” (but he doesn’t illustrate how “ampersand” was written).
Previously, in Spain, the Latin “ad” became a unit of weight written as @ and first called “arrúb” (from the Arab influence “rub,” meaning one-quarter) and later “arroba,” while written as @ appeared in a paper dated 1536: “ a @ of wine, which is 1/30 of a barrel, is worth 70 ducats,” where a “ducat” was a gold or silver coin used as a trade coin in Medieval Europe.
Arcangeli’s ample research found an @ in a Bulgarian manuscript written around the year 1115, where it indicated our “a” in “amen.”

The final chapter of the book is devoted to the historical representation of @ from manuscripts to inscriptions in artifacts, unfortunately without indicating the time period and with the many illustrations running without proper captions (the picture references were included in the text). The chapter also included a sequence of mathematical equations with formulae to demonstrate the geometry of @.

The book ends with an ample bibliography (six full pages) indicating research material that went as far as consulting works about music in Ancient Greece.

This reviewer has found out that, curiously, one cannot save a Word document as @. Instead, the computer converts the name to “document1.doc.”

A final note about reviewing Italian books: the last time VideoAge reviewed an Italian book was a few years ago, and the book was written by the late philosopher of media and TV executive Carlo Sartori. Our review was strongly criticized in Italy because it focused on the book’s content and did not take into consideration that it was written during Sartori’s battle with a degenerative condition. But the real point is that Italians are not accustomed to analytical and critical reviews and Italian reviewers — often authors themselves — are happy to pat each other on the back, often not having bothered to read the book they’ve reviewed. It is entirely possible that VideoAge will also be criticized for this review of Professor Arcangeli’s book, which came to our attention after a stellar review in the Italian press.