Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

The Medieval Origins of the @ Symbol. Hyphens in Dual-Heritage Terms. Pitch.

Episode Summary

900. The story of the @ symbol is much bigger than email. In fact, it was used for hundreds of years before being saved from obscurity by the invention of electronic communication. I explore the medieval origin story of @, plus share a bunch of fun names for it in other languages. Also, many style books recently removed the hyphen from dual-heritage terms like "Asian American," and I explain why in a segment that includes a tribute to former Los Angeles Times editor Henry Fuhrmann.

Episode Notes

900. The story of the @ symbol is much bigger than email. In fact, it was used for hundreds of years before being saved from obscurity by the invention of electronic communication. I explore the medieval origin story of @, plus share a bunch of fun names for it in other languages. Also, many style books recently removed the hyphen from dual-heritage terms like "Asian American," and I explain why in a segment that includes a tribute to former Los Angeles Times editor Henry Fuhrmann.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, we’re going to talk about hyphens and the origin of the “at” symbol. 

But before we start, I do want to mention that this is episode 900 of the podcast. Nine hundred episodes! I know a few of you have been with me since the beginning, and thank you so much, and welcome to everyone who has joined along the way. I didn’t have the wherewithal to make a big deal out of the milestone this week, but it’s pretty amazing, and I did want to acknowledge it a little bit. And I did look at the stats, and we’re at well over 100 million lifetime downloads, which feels unreal. It blows my mind. Anyway, I am incredibly grateful to have had the amazing job of putting together this podcast 900 times. So thank you.

Hyphens in Dual Heritage Terms such as 'Asian American'

By Mignon Fogarty

In 2019, the AP Stylebook changed its recommendations from using hyphens in dual heritage terms like African American and Asian American to not using hyphens. And the reason I decided to talk about it today is that the influential copy editor from the Los Angeles Times who advocated for the change, Henry Fuhrmann, recently died soon after a cancer diagnosis at age 65, which led to some great retrospectives on his work. And frankly, I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t covered it before.

Henry campaigned for the hyphenation change in newsrooms across America, and the AP Stylebook credited a 2018 essay he wrote for The Conscious Style Guide with influencing their decision to make the change.

Early in his essay, Henry noted that the hyphen was long considered a logical tool for showing dual heritage when relevant, but made a strong case based on the history of hyphenation and grammatical usage that it would be better and more accurate to leave it out. Here’s part of his argument in his own words:

“Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American. [The phrase] “hyphenated Americans” is one derogatory result of such usage.”

He explained how, historically, the hyphen could imply dual loyalties, as in the hyphenated “Japanese-American” form during World War II. 

He quoted Eric Liu, a former speechwriter in the Clinton White House, who wrote, “Chinese is one adjective. I am many kinds of American, after all: a politically active American, a short American, an earnest American, an educated American. This is not a quibble about grammar; it’s a claim about the very act of claiming this country.”

And Henry also highlighted comments from the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, an American writer of Chinese descent who separately expressed very similar sentiments and favored getting rid of the hyphen. In that context, she also wrote, “I am an American writer, who, like other American writers, wants to write the great American novel.”

And finally, Henry also noted that nobody hyphenates “French Canadian.”

So Henry was not at all alone in his belief that our language is better when we omit the hyphen from terms such as “Asian American,” “African American,” and “Italian American,” but like the wonderful writer and editor he was, he skillfully brought together the argument in a way that was so convincing that he changed the rules. Today, if you’re following AP style, the Chicago Manual of Style, New York Times style, or even Buzzfeed style, you write these terms without the hyphen.

And I’ll add that there was a huge outpouring of love in the editing community as the shock spread over Henry’s death. I’m sad that I never got to meet Henry in person, but we exchanged a few emails over the years, and he was always wonderful; and many, many people were talking about what a leader he was and also how he was a devoted mentor to younger editors. So it’s also quite fitting that the Los Angeles Times has established a copy editing internship in his name funded by the Times and the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, for which he was a longtime volunteer. Not only did he change the editing rules, he meant a lot to a lot of people. So here’s to Henry Fuhrmann and a life well lived.

Next, let’s talk about the “at” symbol we see every day in email addresses and social media handles.

Where Did the @ Symbol Come From?

By Mignon Fogarty

How Old Is the @ Symbol?

Every source I found seemed to have a different date for the origin of the at symbol, so I'm not going to commit to a certain date. Let's just say it was a long time ago—at least in the Middle Ages.

Many sources including the Ask Oxford website and a book called “Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany” report that the "at" symbol comes from shorthand for the Latin word "ad"—A.D.—which means “to, toward, or at." Scribes used to use it to list prices on invoices and accounting sheets, as in 12 eggs AT one penny per egg.

Names for the @ Symbol

The “at” symbol, by the way, is more formally known in English as the “commercial at,” presumably because of its original use in commerce. It has various names in other languages, and one of my favorites is Italian, in which it is playfully called the “snail.” Longtime listeners or people who have my books will know that in my example sentences, I like to use a character called Squiggly who is a yellow snail. 

I’ve also seen the commercial “at” called a strudel and a cinnamon roll, which are both cute because it is kind of shaped like a rolled up pastry. The Turkish call it a rose, which makes me think of how it used to often be used to make an emoticon rose, typing the “at” symbol for the flower part of the rose, followed by dashes or hyphens for the stem, sometimes various other punctuation marks to show leaves or thorns. @-->--

Many people seem to think the “at” symbol looks like some kind of appendage. It’s a pig’s tail or elephant’s trunk in Danish, a “cat’s tail” is one name for it in Finnish, and in Dutch it’s called a monkey’s tail. In fact, many languages actually have names for it that have something to do with a monkey or a monkey’s tail. 

And in other languages, it’s just a weird letter A. For example, one older name for it in Chinese was the “lacy A.” Names for it in Vietnamese include the “hooked A” and the “bent A,” in Basque it is called a “wrapped A,” and Serbians call it a “crazy A.”

Why Is The A in a Circle?

Describing how we get from the Latin word "ad" to the “at” symbol, Michael Quinion explained on his website World Wide Words, that when the symbol was written by hand (I believe by scribes in the Middle Ages) “the upstroke of the ‘d’ curved over to the left and extended around the ‘a.’ Eventually the lower part fused with the ‘a’ to form one symbol." So the circle around the A is actually a remnant of the tall part of the letter D.

But that’s not the only story. 

In the year 2000, Italian history professor Giorgio Stabile reported that he found an “at” symbol in a document written by a Florentine merchant in 1536.

The sentence reads, "There, an amphora [an @] of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats."

Instead of meaning “at the price of,” the professor says the “at” was an A that stood for “amphora,” a measure of volume, that was wrapped in a flowing circle that extended from the letter, something that was common to the script of the time.

And then in 2009, a Spanish journalist, Jorge Romance, found an even earlier example in a Castillian document from the 1400s where it was used as an abbreviation for the word “arroba,” which referred to the weight of some wheat.

But regardless of the exact origin of the symbol, we now are more familiar with the “commercial at” because of technology.

@ on Keyboards

A book called “Managing Web Usage in the Workplace” tells of examining pictures of old typewriters and finding that it was relatively common for the @ symbol to be included on the keyboard starting around 1880.

@ for Email Addresses

Ray Tomlinson was the first person to use the “at” symbol to format an email address using ARPAnet in 1971 for a message he sent to himself from one computer to another to test the system, and amusingly, he's repeatedly been quoted as saying he doesn't remember what message said—it was just some forgettable test message—because he didn't think it was a big deal at the time.

@ on Twitter

More recently, if you use social media, messaging apps like Slack, and even software like Google Documents, you know that you often use the “at” symbol to tag someone or to refer to their handle or username, but it wasn’t always initiated by the companies.

In the early days of Twitter, for example, users started putting an @ before someone's name to indicate that it was a reply, and the people at Twitter noticed and wrote it into the system so that when you hit the reply link, it automatically inserts the @ symbol. 

When Do You Pronounce the @?

The use of an @ symbol before a person’s username has raised an interesting writing question: If the @ only indicates that something is a response or a name, do you pronounce it and do you write both the word “at” and the “at” symbol? For example, if you wanted to write that people can find me at @thegrammargirl at Instagram, how do you actually write that?

Well, in the Q&A section of the AP Stylebook, the editors say that you write both the word “at” and the “at” symbol before the handle. They don’t address pronunciation, but I would only say the “at” once: You can find me at @thegrammargirl.

The Associated Press also says not to start a sentence with the symbol. If you need to start with a handle, they recommend rewriting the sentence to avoid the problem. For example, instead of writing “@TheGrammarGirl is on Instagram,” [with the “at” symbol before the username at the beginning of the sentence] write something like “You can find @TheGrammarGirl on Instagram” [with that username with the silent “at” symbol in front of it in the middle of the sentence].

‘A’ or ‘an’ before the @ symbol?

People also wonder whether to use the word “a” or “an” before a username that starts with the “at” symbol. Since the way you pronounce the first part of the word drives whether you use “a” or “an,” we have to think again about how we would pronounce it. Even though you generally write the “at” symbol before the username, you generally don’t pronounce it. Let’s use someone’s username that you wouldn’t also use as a regular name like Grammar Girl, for example. Let’s imagine we’re writing about the We Rate Dogs Twitter account and for some reason we want to use their handle instead of the general account name. That’s @dog_rates. If we were reading something aloud about one of their posts, we’d call it “a dog_rates post” since “dog” starts with a consonant sounds, D, and you use the word “a” before words that start with a consonant sound. On the other hand, if we were writing about Randall Munroe, his account is @xkcd, so we’d refer to “an @xkcd post” because X starts with a vowel sound. Eh. Essentially an E-sound. So really, the bottom line is that you just ignore the “at” symbol because you don’t pronounce it. 

And finally to consider how far the “at” symbol has come from designating weights of wheat in the 1400s, Buzzfeed style even allows you to use the “at” symbol as a verb. You can follow it with a hyphen and “ed” or “ing” to say you @-ed someone are are @-ing them.


Before we get to the familect story, if you liked the show today with all its great AP Stylebook details, join me on November 9 for my Advanced AP Style webinar with Ragan Communications. If you have training money left that you have to spend before the end of the year, this is a great way to do it. In an hour and a half, I’ll walk you through some of the trickier points of AP style, and we’ll talk about recent changes you may not have heard about yet. Check the show notes for a link and code to get $90 off your registration, and we’ll also include it in the next email newsletter, which you can sign up for at

Here’s a great familect story from Josh.

"Hi, Mignon. This is Josh calling from Israel long-time listener to the podcast, I just wanted to share with you a familect story. When my son was about three or four years old, he mistakenly understood that the word ‘pitch’ in the phrase ‘pitch black’ to just be like an intensifier, meaning something along the lines of ‘extremely’ or ‘very,’ and would say things like ‘pitch red’ or ‘the soup is pitch hot.’ So we in the family thought it was adorable and understandable, and we just went with it, and you know, we now use the term, you know, the that the food could be pitch delicious, or it could be pitch hot outside, and the like; and that's just the way that a word, and adjective, was misunderstood by a child and gave us a new way to intensify a noun."

Thanks, Josh! I love that. Man, we’ve been noticing here how early it’s getting dark, saying wow, it’s almost pitch black at 7:00 when we used to go for walks not that long ago. A couple of years ago, on Quick and Dirty Tips, we talked about where we got the phrase “pitch black.” It just refers to the color of pitch, which is a sticky black goo you get from distilling wood tar. So saying something is pitch black is just like calling something butter yellow or sky blue.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil, who says people can always call on him for a good vegan restaurant recommendation in NYC. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our intern is Kamryn Lacy.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all, and for the 900th time, thanks for listening.