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’).

Interesting Etymologies


A number of English words have come a long way to become part of the language. A brief look at the histories that accompany them reveal some interesting stories.

Avocado [Noun.]
A pear-shaped fruit with a rough leathery skin, smooth oily edible flesh, and a large stone.

The word for avocado comes from the Aztec word, ahuacatl, which means ‘testicle’. Aside from the similar shape, avocados also act as aphrodisiacs, foods that stimulate sex drive. Avocado therefore is the ‘testicle fruit’.

Jumbo [Adjective.]
Very large, unusually for it’s type.

In 1880, P.T. Barnum bought an elephant, called Jumbo, from the Royal Zoological Society in London. By age 7, this pachyderm consumed 200 pounds of hay, one barrel of potatoes, two bushels of oats, 15 loaves of bread, a slew of onions, and several pails of water every day. His caretaker at the zoo also gave him a gallon or two of whiskey every now and then. At full size, Jumbo stood at 11-and-a-half feet tall and weighed six-and-half tons. His name likely stems from two Swahili words: jambo, meaning ‘hello’, and the word jumbe, meaning ‘chief’.

Clue [Noun.]
A fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem.

According to Greek mythology, when Theseus entered the Labyrinth to kill the minotaur (a half-man, half-bull), he unraveled a ‘clew’ — a ball of string — behind him, so he could find his way back. The word clue didn’t even exist until the mid-1500s when people started to vary the spelling of ‘clew’.

Robot [Noun.]
A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning ‘forced labour’ — which sounds strangely like slavery.

Sycophant [Noun.]
A person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.

Technically, sycophant means someone who denounces someone else as a fig-smuggler. Since the beginning of the sixth century, Athens outlawed transporting food, except olives, outside the city-state’s borders. People mostly broke the law by smuggling figs. Back then, Athenian law permitted blackmailing. These blackmailers, or sykophantes in Greek, wanted to earn some extra cash and threatened to tell the courts about others’ fig-smuggling habits.

Assassin [Noun.]
A person who murders an important person for political or religious reasons.

Members of a fanatical Muslim sect during the Crusades used to smoke hashish and then murder leaders on the opposing side. They started going by the name hashishiyyin, meaning hashish-users in Arabic. Through centuries of mispronunciation, English arrived at assassin.

Phony [Adjective.]
Not genuine, fraudulent.

Back in day, pirates used to sell fawney, basically British slang for fake gold rings. Anything can happen when you add a buccaneer’s accent.

Nimrod [Noun.]
An inept person.

Nimrod actually means a skilful hunter. The word comes from Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, one of the most powerful biblical kings. During the golden age of American animation, Bugs Bunny called Elmer fud a nimrod in an episode of Looney Tunes. As Cracked puts it, that’s kind of like calling your friend “Einstein” after he makes a really dumb statement. Bugs’ sarcasm just stuck.

Whiskey [Noun.]
A spirit distilled from malted grain, especially barley or rye.

Whiskey is the shortened form of whiskeybae, which comes from the Old English usquebae, derived from two Gaelic words: uisce meaning ‘water’, and bethu meaning ‘life’. Thus, whiskey literally means water of life. How accurate.

Difficult to Translate into English


Cafuné
Brazilian Portuguese – The act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.

Dépaysement
French – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.

Prozvonit
Czech – This word means to call a mobile phone and let it ring once so that the other person will call back, saving the first caller money.
In Spanish, the phrase for this is “Dar un toque,” or, “To give a touch.”

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