Skip to main content

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.

Related image
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:

Image result for ampersand evolution

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.

Image result for alphabet with ampersand
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. :)

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


Popular posts from this blog

Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

What's the lesson here? For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts  comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her. The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.   Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The f

43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to b e a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Nibling

CNN: Space Shuttle traveled 18 times the speed of light

The CNN headline is not necessarily inaccurate because what we accept as the standard speed of light, 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second, is more of an average of the speeds of faster and slower lights. Ordinary light, like what we typically get from the sun, typically sticks to the average speed of light. However, here in Boston it's overcast, so when the light hits the clouds it has to slow down considerably. When the light gets through the clouds it's slowed down, which is why things look grayer right now. On bright days, when there are no clouds to impede the light, it can come rushing right at the earth, and its speed makes it seem brighter. Brightness is relative to the speed of light, which is what the Theory of Relativity is all about. The Space Shuttle, flying on a cloudy day and over a part of the country without a lot of artificial light emanating from it, was flying relatively faster than the light in that area at that time. Since the light was th