Enduring symbols

Some keyboard symbols are distinctly and distinctively pedestrian. Take the pound or hash, for example, dear old #. We might use it a lot and it may be rather useful, but it cannot be said that this is a pretty sign, resembling an impoverished waffle or an italicized noughts and crosses. Other symbols are more suggestive, such as the curvacious ampersand which hints at functionality & playfulness at once. The most used symbol of all is the at symbol: @. And yet, despite this poor creature being relentlessly pressed into service day in and day out, we have not come up with a satisfactory and universally accepted term for it in English other than the at sign or at symbol. This would be like describing our friends as bipeds. The shame is compounded by the fact that the at symbol is patently a pretty one, looking like an A which has been apotheosized. There is something very attractive about it with the faint hint of subversion suggested by the fact that it curves to the left and not to the right. No, our ubiquitous symbol does not veer forward and to the right but rather curls on its own terms.

ImageWhat adds insult to injury is that the at symbol enjoys a variety of terms in different languages ranging from the quirky to the delicious (see a list here). I’m partial to the French term, arobase, which has a ring to it. In Hebrew, the popular word is שטרודל or strudel whereas Slovak sees it as zavináč, or pickled fish roll. Swedish has it as an elephant’s trunk, the traditional Luxembourgish term is a monkey’s tail, the Greeks prefer little duck, and Kazakh opts for Moon’s ear or dog’s head. And then, in English, we use the outrageously prosaic at symbol in a gross manifestation of linguistic prostitution. We are better than this. If we cannot treat the tools which we use the most frequently with a modicum of respect, then how can we muster up any sentiments of dignity for anything, or anyone at all? It is not only that the at symbol is brought into service so often – in every e-mail we compose and receive, on Twitter, and on Facebook – but also its unlikely story of survival and triumph which makes it a symbol to be admired. While it made its entry on to the typewriter’s keyboard in 1885, on the Underwood to be precise, its use in our modern sense to denote at dates to at least the sixteenth century and it may be a scribe’s contraction for the Latin “ad”. Anyone working with manuscripts will immediately see the sense in this theory, since the curly D in “ad” is utterly commonplace and sometimes extravagant. They liked their little sleights of hand.

ImageFor nine decades, the at symbol lingered on typewriters as a little-used key -save for commercial settings where quantities would be typed as “15 @ $1.20” etc.- until 1971 and the first e-mail. Ray Tomlinson, the electrical engineer charged with the development of electronic communications, chose it because it was underused in addition to the fact that it couldn’t occur in a proper name. And thus began the phoenix-like rise of the at symbol. There is an interesting recent development in Spanish which also presses the at symbol into an unlikely role. Spanish is like French with gendered plurals. In French, there can be a million women present at an event but if a sole man should be there, “ils” must be used to describe the group. Many proponents of reform in Spanish, desirous of ending this patriarchal intrusion, have advocated “amig@s” for a mixed group of friends, and so on, instead of “amigos” or “amigas”, as a way of gender neutrality, or perhaps more accurately, neutrality. The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), which could give the Académie Française a run for its money in terms of stuffy reactionary attitudes, has violently disapproved of this use of a symbol as a letter, displaying that its members know nothing about this particular symbol’s resilience and flexibility.

ImageToday’s cufflinks suggest an at symbol to me, even though they predate its Internet resurrection. This sterling silver pair is made by Caroline Gleick Rosene, an important mid-century designer who was also a teacher and museum director, training in various places including Hawaii, New York, and Paris. She was based in San Francisco from around 1940 to 1970, and this pair probably dates from early 1950s. Rosene’s work is very distinctive and I have several pairs by her. This beautiful pair has so much attention to detail: an oxidized disk topped with a fragile yet sturdy coil. Paradoxically given its technological connotations, some languages call the at symbol a snail or snail’s shell. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, MoMA, officially announced it was acquiring the at symbol as a design classic in 2010, acknowledging the beauty to found in the ordinary. For me, Caroline Rosene beat them to it.