Where It's At -- and Where It's Not

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By Nancy Szokan
Sunday, October 2, 2005

I'm talking on the phone to an Israeli writer who goes by the nickname Winkie, and I want to send him some information. "What's your e-mail?" I ask.

"Winkie M, Strudel, Yahoo dot com," he says.

"Strudel?" I said. "As in the pastry?" (I'm thinking: Maybe he has a little bakery on the side?) "You mean WinkieM, then s-t-r-u-d- . . . "

"No, no -- it's strudel , that little A sign," he says. "I think you call it 'at'?"

Of course. With a little imagination, I could see that a slice of strudel resembles the @ sign that separates user name from host in e-mail addresses. "Strudel!" I hoot. Winkie, agreeing that it's funny, later sends me a list of words that people in other countries have used for the @ symbol -- most of them a lot more entertaining (if less efficient) than our simple "at."

The list, it turns out, came from an online site, Herodios.com, and was based largely on research done in the early days of e-mail by linguist Karen Steffen Chung of National Taiwan University. Her lengthy collection of @-words, as well as some additions from Post foreign correspondents, shows that while many countries have simply adopted the word "at," or call the symbol something like "circle A" or "curled A," more imaginative descriptions still hold sway in many places.

In Russia, for instance, it seems that the most common word for the @ is sobaka ( dog) or sobachka ( doggie) -- apparently because a computer game popular when e-mail was first introduced involved chasing an @-shaped dog on the screen. (Don't laugh; Pac-Man was shaped like a pie with a missing slice.) So when Natasha gives her e-mail address to someone, it comes out sounding like she calls herself "Natasha, the dog." "Everybody's used to it," says Peter Finn, The Post's Moscow correspondent, "but there are still jokes -- people say 'Natasha, don't be so hard on yourself.' " Ah, those crazy Russians.

Try this: 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, m alpa 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, Aff enschwanz 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.

Danes call it snabel, or elephant's trunk. In the tiny parts of France, Spain and Italy where a disappearing language called Occitan is still spoken, users call it alabast , which means "little hook." In Mandarin Chinese, it's xiao lao shu -- "little mouse" -- which must get confusing given the gizmo of the same name.

Now for the news, also known as the depressing part: As noted by Scott Herron, the compiler of the list at Herodios.com, some of these more colorful images appear to be fading, or are already gone. Many of Chung's correspondents note that their local e-mailers increasingly just say "at."

This might just be a result of the cultural hegemony of English. Or maybe, as e-mail has gone from exciting new technology to spam-filled work tool, it has ceased to inspire as much creativity. Instead you get the mundane Japanese atto maaku -- literally, the "at mark" -- and the Mongolian buurunhii dotorh aa -- "A in round circle."

More strudel, please.

Nancy Szokan, a Post editor, would love to tell people that her e-mail is szokann monkey sign washpost.com, but she doesn't live in Albania.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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