The 'at' sign, @, which fancy typographers refer to by its French name, arobase, is a once unremarked but now central glyph that rewards closer examination. Many claims are made about its genesis, among them that it began circulation in 16th-century Florence as a symbol for the anfora, a unit of commercial measurement then in currency. A few years ago, La Repubblica published a photograph of a curlicue on a 1536 manuscript to prove it. But the French wouldn't have got their arobase if they hadn't derived it not from Italy but from the Spanish and Portuguese term, arroba, which was originally also a unit of measurement, in use from the 11th century onwards. And Italian traders wouldn't have been dealing in @s in 1536 if they weren't, as it turns out when you look at the Florentine manuscript, interested in arrobas of South American wine arriving in Europe by way of Seville. There's a theory that the arroba was itself derived from the Arabic for a quart, ar-rub, but predictably this doesn't get much airtime on the Latinate internet. Popular etymology in France declares that arobase is actually a contraction of the phrase 'à rond bas', where 'bas' stands for 'bas-de-casse', a bit of printing terminology that refers to lower-case letters, and that it's somehow therefore related to the word 'arabesque'. This legerdemain is clearly nonsense but it's no less crazy than the various cutesy attempts by languages across the world to naturalise the sign by making it an animal emblem: in Korean it's apparently a snail, in Danish an elephant's trunk, in Turkish a ram, in Hungarian a maggot, in many Slavonic languages a monkey, apart from in Russian, where - inexplicably - it's a dog.
LRB 28 May 2009 | PDF Download