The ‘at’ sign, @, which fancy typographers refer to by its French name, arobase, is a once unremarked but now central glyph that rewards closer examination. Many claims are made about its genesis, among them that it began circulation in 16th-century Florence as a symbol for the anfora, a unit of commercial measurement then in currency. A few years ago, La Repubblica published a photograph of a curlicue on a 1536 manuscript to prove it. But the French wouldn’t have got their arobase if they hadn’t derived it not from Italy but from the Spanish and Portuguese term, arroba, which was originally also a unit of measurement, in use from the 11th century onwards. And Italian traders wouldn’t have been dealing in @s in 1536 if they weren’t, as it turns out when you look at the Florentine manuscript, interested in arrobas of South American wine arriving in Europe by way of Seville. There’s a theory that the arroba was itself derived from the Arabic for a quart, ar-rub, but predictably this doesn’t get much airtime on the Latinate internet. Popular etymology in France declares that arobase is actually a contraction of the phrase ‘à rond bas’, where ‘bas’ stands for ‘bas-de-casse’, a bit of printing terminology that refers to lower-case letters, and that it’s somehow therefore related to the word ‘arabesque’. This legerdemain is clearly nonsense but it’s no less crazy than the various cutesy attempts by languages across the world to naturalise the sign by making it an animal emblem: in Korean it’s apparently a snail, in Danish an elephant’s trunk, in Turkish a ram, in Hungarian a maggot, in many Slavonic languages a monkey, apart from in Russian, where – inexplicably – it’s a dog.
The new global battle for ownership of @ is in a way heartening: the old orthodoxy had it that it was merely a ligature used for accounting purposes. It was a combination of the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’ to designate ‘ea(ch)’, or of ‘a’ and ‘d’ for the Latin ad: ‘at’ or ‘to’ or something of equally diabolical simplicity. Either way, it had an aura of empire, whether derived from Britain or Rome. It was certainly in accounting for stuff that it made its way into the 20th century: it appeared as a key on the 1902 Lambert typewriter, made in New York, and it was as shorthand for pricing items – 60 widgets @ $2 = $120 – that it subsisted until 1971, when Ray Tomlinson of arpanet invented email. And now, of course, it’s ubiquitous. No one would know where anything was meant to go if it wasn’t for the amazing @.
Tomlinson, when interviewed on the subject, claimed that he simply needed a handy symbol to separate the user (‘nixon’) from the domain they resided at (‘whitehouse.gov’). He also said: ‘I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to another. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.’ This insouciance – or evasiveness? – is clearly suspicious. What was he trying to say? This is why it might not be insane to give some credence to the suggestion made in passing by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez in On the Dot: The Speck that Changed the World (Oxford, £13.99), an excellent history of another underexamined typographical mark, that Tomlinson – though employed by the US Department of Defense at the time, and on the surface a player by the rules – was secretly a pataphysician, or follower of the thinking of Alfred Jarry, and that ‘the arobase is somehow connected with the spiral glyph called the gidouille on the front of the gown of Père Ubu, the Macbeth-like protagonist in Jarry’s play Ubu Roi.’
Père Ubu is fat, coarse, a tyrant, a greedy slob and would-be king of Poland (‘that is to say, nowhere’) who seeks instant gratification – not unlike the modern user of the internet – and, significantly, the play was written to be performed by actors pretending to be puppets. The spiral gidouille, engraved on Père Ubu’s belly in Jarry’s woodcut for the play-text’s frontispiece, which also has him wearing a Klan-like mask, is meant to symbolise the tyrant’s intestines. By linguistic association, it’s felt to contain a gross combination of Gribouille, grenouille, andouille, couille, gargouille: gargoyles, testicles, tripe, frogs, power-hungry fiends. The ubiquitous @, which had seemed so analytically secure, turns out to be engorged with potential meanings. That, presumably, is what people hope for when they sign up for Twitter: that they can be anyone, and in 140 characters or fewer can produce a digested version of whatever personality they choose.
Twitter, the social networking site that everyone is tweeting about, has been plotting the takeover of @ for a long time. When the site first launched, it called itself twttr, in evident homage to the first word of Ubu Roi (‘Merdre!’, usually translated as ‘Shittr!’), which caused a riot during the play’s 1896 premiere. In email addresses, @ is all about precision and privacy: your message is routed to a particular individual at a particular domain, to a subset containing a single member. Twitter reverses the principle: it makes @ a tool for sending a message to an individual – @barackobama, @oprah, @therealdevil – that anyone who chooses to can overhear. The at sign used to indicate a whisper: now it’s become a gargantuan shout. Since the most frenetic Twitterers are in the business of broadcasting their every daily doing to anyone who will listen, it’s hardly surprising that when, earlier this month, Twitter’s rock-star-like founders, @ev and @biz, tried to change this policy such that semi-private conversations could be semi-private once more, the Twitterverse shouted them down. Frankly, @ has got out of control. And I think this is something that the pataphysicians could have predicted, prophetic as they were of the pit of degradation that the internet would become. But to make sure of their views, I’ve just looked up @pataphysician on the web. He has emitted only a single tweet, dated 8 August last year: ‘Wondering why I signed up for twitter.’ He’s not the only one.