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At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

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Keyboard from an Underwood No. 5 typewriter, circa 1900.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to send messages on computers, you should have a way to distinguish the user from the computer the user was using. He wasn’t thinking domains and servers at this point, but rather the machine he was using at the time, a Model 33 Teletype. So he chose a symbol from the keyboard that was neither a letter nor a number, and thus the first email address was born: raytomlinson@model33teletype. It wasn’t part of a large network. It was only used to send a message from an MIT computer to another computer that was sitting right next to it, over the ARPANET system, which would later become the internet. The first email message was, as Tomlinson recalled in 2010, “QWERTYUIOP or something like that.” (He kept quiet about his invention at first. He recalled telling a colleague, “Don’t tell anyone about this. It’s not what I’m supposed to be working on!”) But since the @ symbol predates computers, why was it on the keyboard in the first place? It predates typewriters, even. But if you look through old books, you’re most likely going to find the word “at” written out. So what was it used for? @ is and always has been an abbreviation for “at”, but why abbreviate such a short word? A clue lies in the design of the symbol. It’s actually an uppercase cursive A surrounded by the letter D. The curlicue around the A is open and round, so it doesn’t look like a D anymore, but the design changed over time. It originated as an abbreviation for the word ad, which is Latin for at. Medieval monks invented it while copying manuscripts, finding it saved both paper and ink. This was worth considering, too, since paper and ink were expensive commodities. They had to cut corners everywhere they could, so they came up with the @ symbol. It might not seem like much, but when you use and reuse the same two-letter word over and over, it adds up. The @ symbol wasn’t their only shortcut, of course. Another commonly reused word was et, the Latin for and. Their et abbreviation is another one we still use today. When this one was written in cursive, the E and the T were merged together into one symbol, as well. The symbol evolved over time, and eventually developed into the &, or the ampersand, as we call it. Its evolution went something like this:

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If you squint, you can still see the E and the T in the modern &, but the symbol has come to have a life all its own.
The word ampersand is not of Latin origin, though.  It comes from 19th century English, when children would recite the alphabet.  The symbol was previously identified as the “and per se sign”, and commonly appeared as a sort of 27th letter of the alphabet in children’s schoolbooks.  When children would recite the alphabet, they’d get to the end and say, “W, X., Y, Z, and per se sign.” The “and per se sign” part eventually got mushed into ampersand.

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The alphabet from A to &.

Modern use of the ampersand, as well as the at sign, isn’t for abbreviation.  We don’t need to save space as much as the medieval monks did with their expensive paper and ink (though we do need to on Twitter, where the two keystrokes saved by typing & instead of and can really make a difference).  There are rules limiting the use of the ampersand.  The at sign, on the other hand, is seldom if ever used for anything but email addresses anymore.  It’s made a great leap in evolution over the past forty years. It’s not the only one, either. The octothorpe, also known as the number sign or the pound sign, has moved from an old Latin market symbol for “one pound weight” to the hashtag.  When you write #TrueOrBetter, it has nothing to do with weight, as weighty as they subjects can get sometimes. What other symbols we use today will morph into completely different ones in the future? We can only guess. :)

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A robot from the future on the April 22, 2017 episode of Doctor Who.  It speaks fluent Emoji!  Is this where we’re headed?


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