November 30, 2005

clinging monkeys going academic

how do you spell your e-mail address? specifically, how do you refer to the @-sign? in germany, it used to be known as the clinging monkey (Klammeraffe), but that was in the days when only geeks had e-mail addresses, nowadays it's just "at" (we love english words).

the washington post recently had an article on this:

Where It's At -- and Where It's Not [Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2005]
By Nancy Szokan

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,, 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, Affenschwanz among German-speaking Swiss. (Many Germans apparently used to say Klammeraffe , meaning "clinging monkey," or Schweinekringel [ never heard that one ), 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, 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.

what strikes me is that the @-symbol (of all things) has become an accepted way to indicate gender neutrality. the university of wisconsin, for example, offers a chican@ and latin@ studies program, and that's the official spelling.

it reminds me of the german binnenmajuskel or "inner I", the capitalized i that is used to indicate that a female form is chosen to represent both the masculine and the feminine form (this is different from internal capitalization known as CamelCase). in german, agent nouns derived from verbs end on -er when they are masculine and on -erin when they are feminine. a lehrer is a male teacher, and a lehrerin is a female teacher. the masculine form is usually chosen to represent both genders, but feminists have challenged this automatism - why should the masculine form be used to represent both genders?

so, how to deal with it? some people will still only use the masculine form (after all, it has worked for centuries), some will use the masculine and the feminine form, coordinated ("Lehrer und Lehrerin") or separated by a slash ("Lehrer/-in"), for example in job postings (because they have to), some will use only the feminine form (to make a point), and some will use - count me among them - the feminine form but with a capitalized I to indicate that it is a conscious choice they are making ("LehrerIn").

german doesn't have capital letters in the middle of a word, normally. if one writes LehrerIn, what it means is something like "male teacher or female teacher and i really want you to notice that the teacher could be female". the german "inner I" may look odd, but at least it is a letter and everybody knows how to pronounce it. the clinging monkey, however, is not a letter. it represents a word, very much like numbers represent words as chunks ( there's nothing in the symbol 4 that indicates how it is to be pronounced). the @-sign is associated with the pronunciation of the word at, and it is not clear to me at all why one would pronounce something that is spelled chican@ as "chicano slash chicana", which, apparently, is the correct way to read this aloud.

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