What Does the at Symbol (@) Mean?

The at symbol (@), represented by the @ character, is used in email addresses to separate the Username of server name (Username@server).

The scribes of the Middle Ages, in charge of copying Latin texts, were the first to use this spelling. Perhaps to save time, ink or paper, the copyists joined the two letters that make up the preposition ad in a single symbol, @.

Currently, the at sign serves as a prefix in some social networks, such as Twitter or Instagram, to mention a user’s account.

In instant messaging applications, such as WhatsApp or Telegram, the @ sign is used to mention a user specifically within a group.

In general, it can be used as a signal to indicate those establishments that offer Internet access.

Origin of the @ symbol

The term at sign does not have a source determined, however, it is believed to derive from the Arabic ar-rub, which means ʽfourth partʼ. During the 16th century, navigators used it as a measurement of weight and volume of goodsboth solid and liquid. Four arrobas formed a larger unit known as a quintal.

Regarding the character or graphical representation of at sign @is associated with the latin preposition ad, meaning ʽinʼ, ʽtoʼ, ʽtowardsʼ, or ʽuntilʼ. In the Middle Ages it was customary to write this preposition joining both letters, a and d.

The @ symbol is read at in English and is related to its use in computing. Email addresses literally tell us that a particular user (is) in a certain server: user@server.

At sign

The at sign was part of the keyboards on typewriters, as it was equivalent to a unit of weight and measurement. Although its use was declining, this symbol was never replaced or eliminated.

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In 1971, computer programmer Ray Tomlinson, who implemented e-mail, brought the at symbol back to life.

Tomlinson selected this symbol from his computer keyboard to do the first email sending test.

The at sign (@) served to clearly differentiate user and server, and was not part of the conventional characters that make up the proper names of users or company servers.

At symbol in computing

In computing, the at symbol is used in emails and other social networks, to differentiate between a user’s account and the server used. It is also used in different programming languages.

Its writing varies depending on the language and the operating system installed on the computer.

There are systems where the at symbol is obtained by pressing the keys that correspond to AltGr and Q.

Keyboard with @ on Q key

How to type the @ symbol on a keyboard with the at symbol embedded in the Q key.

There are other versions in which the at symbol is found on its own key or as a subscript of the number 2.

To place the symbol on this type of keyboard, you must type Alt gr y 2, or Alt y 2, as shown in the image.

Keyboard with @ on key 2

How to type the @ symbol on a keyboard with the at symbol embedded in the 2 key.

See also:

  • E-mail.
  • Symbol.
  • User.
  • Word.
  • Software.

References:

  • Millenaar, V. (2004). Subjectivity of virtuality: an analysis from the at sign. In VI Conference on Sociology. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires.
  • Feixa, C., Fernández-Planells, A., & Figueras-Maz, M. (2016). Hashtag generation. Youth movements in the era of the social web. Latin American Journal of Social Sciences, Childhood and Youth, 14(1), 107-120.
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