What To Call The @


The @ is called by many different names across the 28 member states of the EU – mainly animals. The map also locates curious clusters in which these animals congregate, as if certain climates are more favourable to certain imaginary creatures than to others. Electronic elephants seem to thrive only in Scandinavia, for example.

The Romance languages by and large stuck to the inanimate arroba, the pre-digital name for the @ sign in Spanish and Portuguese. That name is derived from the Arabic ar-rub, meaning a quarter – in this case, a measure of weight: 25% of what a donkey (or mule) could carry. In Spain, the customary weight of an arroba was 25 pounds (11.5 kg), in Portugal, 32 pounds (14.7 kg). On the map, we see these weights proliferate throughout the Iberian peninsula, but also in France and French-speaking Belgium (as arobase).

Continental Europe is otherwise dominated by digital monkeys, due to the likeness of the @ to a monkey tail curling around a tree branch. In Germany and Austria, the symbol is referred to as Klammeraffe. The word translates as ‘spider monkey’ – an American genus of monkey noted for its long tail. Klammer on its own can mean ‘bracket’, ‘staple’ or ‘paperclip’. The Klammeraffe shares Germany and Austria with the ordinary at. But in Poland, the małpa (‘monkey’) has the country to itself.

Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium refer to the @ as apenstaart(je), ‘(little) monkey tail’. In Luxembourgish, that becomes Afeschwanz.

The simian simile also proliferates throughout the Balkans: in Romanian, the @ is called coadă de maimuţă (‘monkey tail’), in Bulgarian маймунка (maimunka – ‘little monkey’). Croatians either use at or manki, a direct loan from the English ‘monkey’ (rather than the Croatian word for monkey, majmun). Their Slovenian neighbours call it an afna (‘little monkey’).

In Scandinavia, the elephant was seen as an apt metaphor for the curly a. In both Danish and Swedish, the @ is called snabel-a, with snabel meaning ‘[elephant’s] trunk’. Their Finnish neighbours offically call it at-merkki, but colloquially either kissanhäntä (‘cat’s tail’) or miukumauku (‘meow-meow’).

Czechs and Slovaks are united in their fishy metaphor for the @, finding in its curly appearance a similarity to zavináč, or ‘rollmops’ (rolled pickled herring fillets).

Italy is dominated by a chiocciola (‘snail’) riding up its boot. In Greece and Cyprus, the @ is rather enigmatically compared to a παπάκι (papaki – ‘duckling’).

The Baltics follow the English fashion, and say at. Not very imaginative perhaps, but less impalatable than the Hungarians, who say kukac, or ‘maggot’.

That concludes all the fauna on this delightfully weird map, but here are some other remarkable names for @ in other languages: Armenian: shnik (‘puppy’); Chinese: xiao laoshu (‘little mouse’); Japanese: naruto (after the tidal whirlpools in Naruto bay); Kazakh: aykulak (‘moon’s ear’); Norwegian: krøllalfa (‘curly alpha’); Russian: sobaka (‘dog’); Ukrainian: vukho (‘ear’).

Myths of the Milky Way


The ancient Greeks called our galaxy galaxias kyklos, or ‘milky circle’. The myth goes that Zeus brought Heracles to Hera to suckle when she was sleeping. Hera was in conflict with the little infant, as you would be if your husband brought home a half-mortal child that wasn’t yours. As baby Heracles was having his meal, Hera woke up suddenly and pushed him away, resulting in a few drops of spilt milk. The drops created the galaxy that is now known as the Milky Way.

English: Artist's conception of the spiral str...

Artist’s conception of the spiral structure of the Milky Way

The Romans got the name of our galaxy from the Greeks. In Latin, they called the galaxy Via Lactea which means ‘road of milk’. The English language, in turn, adopted this name and baptised the galaxy in which we find our planet the Milky Way. There are, however, many other mythological origin stories that explain the various alternate names of the Milky Way in other languages.

In Finland, the Milky Way is called Linnunrata, or ‘path of the birds’. In Finnish Mythology, the world was formed from a waterfowl’s egg bursting. The sky was the shell of the egg, and the Earth as we know it was flat. At the edges of the Earth was Lintukoto, or the home of the birds. Lintukoto was a warm region where birds migrated during the winter. The band of light that the Greeks thought of as milk was, according to the Finns, the path that the birds took on their way to Lintukoto.

Armenia has a different idea about the Milky Way. There, it’s called hard goghi chanaparh, or ‘Straw Thief’s Way.’ The story goes that the god Vahagn stole cartloads of straw Barsham, the Assyrian King, and took it to Armenia during a particularly cold winter. To get there, he fled across the Heavens and dropped some straw on the way, making the Milky Way.

Likewise, the Milky Way is called various forms of ‘straw way’ in several other languages across Central Asia and Africa. It’s Ça Taxina Taça in Chechen, or ‘the route of scattered straw’; traditionally kumova slama, or ‘Godfather’s Straw’ in Croatian, though Milky Way is also used now in Croatia; and samanyolu or ‘road of straw’ in Turkish. It’s likely that Arabs heard the story in Armenia first and spread the name to various other lands.

In many northern countries, the Milky Way is called the ‘Winter Way’, such as the Icelandic vetrarbrautin, the alternative Norwegian vinterbrauta, and the Swedish vintergatan. The reason for this is thought to be because, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way is more visible during the winter.

In much of East Asia, the galaxy is referred to as the ‘Silver River’. A Chinese legend says that once upon a time, there was a beautiful young maiden named the Goddess Weaver, the daughter of the Celestial Queen Mother. One day, a Buffalo Boy was tending his herd when he spied the Goddess Weaver bathing in a nearby lake. The two instantly fell in love, and were soon married and produced two children. But the Celestial Queen Mother grew jealous of their love and stole the Goddess Weaver away. When the Buffalo Boy pursued them, the Queen took out a pin and drew a silver river between them so that they would be separated forever. That silver river was the Milky Way. In Japan and Korea ‘silver river’ means galaxies in general, not just the Milky Way.

In Spanish, the Milky Way is called a few different things. First, via lactea, or the Milky Way. Camino de Santiago means the ‘Road of Santiago’ or ‘Road to Santiago’, and was used for the Milky Way because pilgrims used it to guide them to Santiago de Compostela, a holy site. Compostela is the third way to say the name of the galaxy, and this one is perhaps the most accurate of all the different names. It literally means ‘the field of stars’.