June 14, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: @ or at & sensuous or sensual

Posted in @/at, sensuous/sensual at 6:21 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: @ or at

A reader writes:

Thanks for the “method and methodology” review, a losing battle but one worth fighting. And thanks for the history of the ampersand, news to me.

Maybe your sources, Simon Garfield’s Just My Type: A book about fonts and Type & Typography: Highlights from Matrix, The review for printers and bibliophiles can answer a question I have had for fourteen years: what is the name for the “at” symbol, @? Is the Spanish/Portuguese word, arroba correct in English? Wikipedia thinks so, but I have always thought that such an ancient symbol might also have a more Anglo-Saxon name as well.

Okay, I’ll bite. Just keep in mind that we don’t want to get off track from our primary mission which is to provide tips to help you to produce clear and elegant writing. But the legend of @ is fun to read about and is worth a few words.

Let me start off by saying that we generally refer to @ as the ‘at sign’ or even just ‘at.’ The ASCII term for it is ‘commercial at.’ These days, we know @ because of the Internet, particularly email and Twitter. Before that, @ was considered a commercial term and was used largely by accountants or merchants to indicate the cost of something (e.g., 12 oranges @ $.50/orange). But it is a symbol that has been in use for a very long time.

The origins of the ‘at sign’ are a source of some dispute. There are some who attribute its origin to the middle ages (or even earlier) and believe that @ is a ligature developed by monks who had to transcribe works by hand and is based on the Latin ‘ad’ which means ‘to’ or ‘toward.’ But this seems to be more of a hypothesis than an evidence-based finding. The first (apparently) documented use of @ dates from the mid-1500s when a merchant used it to describe a unit of measure, an amphora. The amphora was a ceramic container used to transport liquid or dry goods and, as a unit of measurement, was considered about 1/30th of a barrel. Some people refer to the @ symbol as an amphora which jibes with what the reader noted about the Spanish arroba which means the same. Some say that it stems from the Old English and stands for ‘at the cost of’ represented by a ‘c’ surrounding an ‘a.’ Still others say it stands for ‘at each’ and is a ligature made by joining the letters ‘a’ and ‘e.’ It is really a mystery.

The greatest mystery, for me, is the several sources that state unequivocally that the OFFICIAL name for @ is asperand. What made this official? I can find no reason for this, and moreover, I cannot find the word ‘asperand’ in most dictionaries (including the OED), and  I can find no indication of its etymology! As I said, a mystery.

What I find more interesting is that other countries, much more colorful and, in this context, more creative than we are, have names for the ‘at sign’ that stem from the way it looks: monkey’s tail, elephant’s trunk, snail, wiggling worm, pig’s tail, pickled herring (?), little mouse, ear, strudel, pretzel, crazy a, sleeping cat, little duck, and so on.

We do know that Ray Tomlinson (the inventor of network email) selected @ to be used in email addresses in 1971 because he was looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much, and @ was on keyboards and was, according to Tomlinson, the obvious choice.

Finally (and this is very cool), New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) announced the acquisition of @ into its architecture and design collection in 2010. It’s really a conceptual acquisition. Here is how MOMA explained it: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2010/03/22/at-moma

So while you can call it asperand, amphora, or ampersat (I saw that someplace, too), I’m sticking with ‘at sign’ or simply ‘at’; it’s not particularly creative but it describes @ to a T.

Tip 2: Sensuous or sensual

The good news is that I didn’t find this error in anyone’s grant proposal. It was in a newspaper I was reading recently, and the writer described the atmosphere of a movie as being sensuous when he or she really meant sensual. When I noticed this, I thought that it merited a brief mention.

Sensuous means ‘affecting the senses.’ It often refers to the aesthetics of something. There is no sexual connotation to sensuous. As a matter of fact, the word was ‘invented’ by the poet, John Milton, because Milton wanted to describe poetry as “more simple, sensuous, and passionate” without implying some sexual or libidinous element. We can say that some music is sensuous in that it touches or is pleasing to the senses.

Sensual, on the other hand, refers to the arousal of physical or sexual appetites and is often, but not always, used in a pejorative sense. An R-rated film may be considered sensual if it received its rating for its explicit sex scenes.

Sensuous is commonly used when sensual is intended. They are not synonymous, and the distinction should be maintained. After all, ‘sensuous’ was coined to do just that.

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