Academic journal article Visible Language

Commercial at @

Academic journal article Visible Language

Commercial at @

Article excerpt

The "commercial at," the character @, has needed more historical investigation for some time, and indeed I have drafted many texts on it without posting them. This was not so much because the Wikipedia article on @ was seriously defective. It does, as one might expect, supply a great deal of what is needed. But the published information has failed to settle some of the puzzling details that we have some right to expect would have been resolved by now.

In his mostly excellent brief history for a non-professional readership, Ancient Writing and Its Influence (1932), the palaeographer B. L. Ullman rather rashly remarked,

The national hands which grew out of cursive preserved a still greater number of ligatures. The Carolingian hand suppressed most of them... But some of them were too well established and therefore have persisted to this day. The most important of all was that of et, introduced into formal writing by half uncial. We use it in English for ''and'; the equivalent for Latin et, and call it "ampersand" ("and per se and") a name that arose when this character was placed at the end of the alphabet and was recited with the other letters: "x, y, z, and, per se [by itself] (the character standing for) and". This has taken on many different forms in different styles of writing and printing, but nearly all are based on the old & and the italic &. ... Other ligatures still in use are ae (æ) ... There is also the sign @, which is really for ad, with an exaggerated uncial d.

The "lay" or arrangement of types in the compositor's case, although it had mostly become fairly standardized, tended to vary in some of its details from printing-house to printing-house, according to the kind of work that was chiefly set there. The abandonment of long s and its ligatures in about 1800, which had occupied nearly twenty sorts of the roman and italic fonts, freed up some space in the case. The 1892 edition of Practical Printing by John Southward showed a series of non-alphabetic characters in its example of an "improved" upper case which had not been in a normal case earlier in the century.

These, shown above, in the top three rows of the upper case, included not only @ and the mostly redundant "per cent" character %, but also the pound sign £, the dollar $, and also types for the calligraphic "per" and for lb (the pound weight). These were all needed for use in commercial jobs like the printing of catalogues of goods for sale. The & was included in one of the small boxes at the left hand side of the lower case, which had long been its traditional place. The lb character with its cross stroke became obsolete, but it is worth noting that it was used throughout the 29 volumes of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, set on the Monotype machine.

Many of these characters migrated to the typewriter, which was introduced as a commercial machine for use in offices. No significant domestic market for it was imagined by its original makers, just as the first makers of computers notoriously could not believe that there might be a domestic market for their product. The "commercial characters" were not found on every early typewriter, but it seems to be agreed that most of them, including @, had been placed on typewriters by the early twentieth century, and thereafter few typewriter keyboards lacked them. For this reason, these symbols were unquestioningly adopted by the makers of computer keyboards, who were rigidly bound by tradition.

The "per" symbol (which was admittedly a rather elaborate design) failed to get onto the normal typewriter keyboard and has faded from memory. However, one symbol that did, although few users of computers had any idea what it was for and how to use it, was of course @. Since it appeared to be both universally available and largely useless, it was adopted, as we know (the event has been well-documented), for use with the internet and with email. And although it has been a nuisance to the designers of fonts, who have rarely found its form easy to adapt to match traditional letters, there seems little likelihood that we shall get rid of it easily. …

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