It was a strange, almost nerdish opening query in the breakfast room of a cheap hotel and caught me a bit by surprise. Most breakfast conversation in these places tend to be about where you are from, where you have been or are travelling and questions to compare notes about what is worth visiting in the current town.
I responded that we call it “at”.
“I know that, everyone says that, but what is it really called”, she fired back disappointed at my meagre suggestion. She proudly stated “We call it chiocciola which is a snail in English.”
I was simply lost for words. Chiocciola did seem a much more appealing choice. In a language as rich in words as English, which seems to have a word for every possible circumstance, why is there no real word for the “@” symbol, or am I simply to ignorant to be aware of it. At a nearby table, a Frenchman indicated that they sometimes use escargot in the same manner (though they also have a duller more typical term).
It started me into an embarrassing sequence of shameless nerdish breakfast queries over the following days to discover that most languages have far more flamboyant words for the innocent “@” symbol, which has become so prevalent in our life. After all, I wasn’t likely to meet any of these people again so the odd nerdy inquiry seemed pretty safe.
The answers provide a rich variety of visual descriptors. The Danes and Swedes favour snabela which translates as elephant trunk, while the Finns call it kissanhäntä or cat’s tail. Some Finns utilise the melodic miukumauku which is their description for the sound a cat makes. The neighbouring Russians use man’s best friend (sobaka) in their email addresses.
In Hungary, the slightly less pleasant kukac (maggot) is favoured. Similarly, the Thais use their word for wiggling worm. In the Czech Republic (zavináč or rollmop herring) and Israel (shtrudel or strudel) food is the target of their description. Finally, the Filipinos go for utong or nipple.
I certainly don’t lose sleep over it but I do wonder why English didn’t manage a more elegant word for this modest but ubiquitous symbol of the electronic age.