The @ symbol is an "amphora." In English, it is also commonly called
an "at" sign or a "commercial at."
Here are some excerpts from a brief history of this symbol, which has
undergone an upsurge in use in our computer age:
That ubiquitous symbol of Internet era modernity, the @ used in e-mail
addresses, is actually at least 500 years old and was invented by
Italian merchants as a measure of weight or volume, according to a
Rome university professor.
The first known use of the distinctive letter "a" wrapped in its own
tail occurs in a letter written by a Florentine merchant on May 4,
1536, said Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at
Rome's La Sapienza University. The symbol represents an amphora, a
measure of capacity based on the terracotta jars used to transport
grains and liquids in the ancient Mediterranean world, he said.
"One can't say this is the first example of its use, as ancient
financial institutions may have earlier examples lying forgotten in
their archives," Stabile said over iced tea in Rome's scenic Piazza
The professor discovered the document while doing research for a
visual history of the 20th century, which is due to be published by
the Treccani Encyclopedia. In the document a trader called Francesco
Lapi describes the arrival in Spain of ships bearing treasure from
"There an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is
worth 70 or 80 ducats," Lapi wrote in his letter, sent from Seville to
a colleague in Rome.
"No symbol is born by chance," Stabile said. "This one has represented
the entire history of navigation on the seas and has now come to
typify travel in cyberspace."
Tech Informer: At sign traveled high seas with Italian merchants
The excellent site "How Stuff Works" gives this concise discussion of
The funny little a with its tail circling back around it is probably
one of the most commonly used symbols today. So it is truly amazing to
learn that there is no official, universal name for it. The most
accepted term, even in many other languages, is to call it the at
sign. But there are dozens of different words used to describe it. A
lot of languages use words that associate the shape of the symbol with
some type of animal.
Here are a few examples of the many exotic terms associated with the @
apestaart - Dutch for "monkey's tail"
snabel - Danish for "elephant's trunk"
kissanhnta - Finnish for "cat's tail"
klammeraffe - German for "hanging monkey"
kukac - Hungarian for "worm"
dalphaengi - Korean for "snail"
grisehale - Norwegian for "pig's tail"
sobachka - Russian for "little dog"
Before it became the standard symbol for e-mail, the @ symbol was
typically used to indicate the cost or weight of something. For
example, if you bought five oranges for $1.25 each, you might write it
as 5 oranges @ $1.25 ea. It is still used in this manner on a variety
of forms and invoices around the world.
The actual origin of the symbol is uncertain. It was used by monks
making copies of books before the invention of the printing press.
Since every word had to be painstakingly transcribed by hand for each
copy of a book, the monks that performed the copying duties looked for
ways to reduce the number of individual strokes per word for common
words. So, the word at became a single stroke of the pen as @ instead
of three strokes. While it doesn't seem like much today, it made a
huge difference to the men who spent their lives copying manuscripts!
Another origin tale states that the @ symbol was used as an
abbreviation for the word amphora, which was the unit of measurement
used to determine the amount held by the large terra cotta jars that
were used to ship grain, spices and wine. Giorgio Stabile, an Italian
scholar, discovered this use of the @ symbol in a letter written in
1536 by a Florentine trader named Francesco Lapi. It seems likely that
some industrious trader saw the @ symbol in a book transcribed by
monks using the symbol and appropriated it for use as the amphora
abbreviation. This would also explain why it became common to use the
symbol in relation to quantities of something.
How Stuff Works: What do you call the @ symbol used in e-mail
Several other accounts of the origin of the @ symbol, how it came to
be known as an amphora, and what it is called in other languages, may
be found on these sites:
USC Health Sciences Campus: The Lowly @ Sign
Al Teich's Technology & the Future Toolkit: Who Put the @ in Your
Kurt Sermeus Home Page: The Origin of the @ Symbol
Quinion: WHERE IT'S AT
The Industry Standard: A Brief History of @
The Guardian: merchant@florence wrote it first 500 years ago
Cool Quiz: That Explains It!
My Google search strategy:
"amphora" + "symbol"
I hope this information is helpful. Please request a clarification
before rating my answer if further assistance is needed, or if any of
the links above do not function.