Monday, October 03, 2005

Where It's @

A typographical squiggle, suddenly elevated to everyday use with the rise of e-mail, inspires a bubbling in the bottomless well of human creativity, and offers a small lesson in how language happens.

Look at the @. What does it remind you of? Apparently it reminds a lot of people around the world of a monkey with a long and curling tail; thus, their e-mail addresses might include variations of the word for monkey. That's majmunsko in Bulgarian, malpa in Polish , majmun in Serbian and shenja e majmunit ("the monkey sign") in Albanian. Or they might call it an "ape's tail": aapstert in Afrikaans, apsvans in Swedish , apestaart in Dutch, Affenschwanz among German-speaking Swiss. (Many Germans apparently used to say Klammeraffe, meaning "clinging monkey," or Schweinekringel, a pig's tail -- though these days it's usually just "at.") In Croatian, they call the sign "monkey," but they say the word in English. Go figure.

Does the sign make you think of a snail? That's what you might get in Korean (dalphaengi) or Italian (chiocciola) or sometimes Hebrew (shablul, when they're not saying strudel). The French apparently flirted briefly with escargot. "Yes, it looks like a snail," noted one amused Korean. "But isn't it funny and ironic, since 'snail mail' is opposed to e-mail in English?"

Do you see the @ as a curled up cat? That's why it's sometimes kotek or "kitten" in Poland and miuku mauku in Finland, where cats say "miau. "

In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it can be zavinac, or rolled-up pickled herring. In Sweden, when it's not a monkey's tail, it's a kanelbulle, or cinnamon bun. In Hungary, it's kukac, for worm or maggot.