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Matt:

This may come as a surprise to many of you Internet chuckleheads out there, but the symbol @ does not mean "at." It means "each." So what I wanna know is, what illiterate computer bozo suddenly decided it means "at"?

-- Mark Schimming, Oceanside

I know I speak for all Internet chuckleheads when I say -- how do I word this for maximum impact....where's a Rudeboy's Thesaurus when you need one.... Hey, Mark, interesting fact. D'ya know how old the word chucklehead is? When I hear it, I always think of somebody with a head made out of Chuckles candy, those little fruit-jelly pillows. Somebody like the Keep on Truckin' guy, but with a big ol' lime rectangle on top. Anyway -- boy, am I wrong. It's possible that the first person ever to be called a chucklehead was Thomas Paine. Or Frederick the Great of Prussia or Bach or Voltaire or Pope Clement XII. Maybe the guys who rowed Washington across the Delaware called him a chucklehead for standing up in the boat. Not out of the question.

"Chucklehead" is even older than "chuckle," that muted heh-heh-heh. Some of the first people ever able to chuckle: Queen Victoria, Robert Browning, Renoir, John Stuart Mill, Abner Doubleday. Chucklehead has always meant blockhead, because a "chuck" was a lump of something, usually wood. Now we'd say "chunk." And etymologically, a heh-heh-heh chuckle seems to have more to do with chickens than wood.

But back to our friend @. It's a thing with no name, other than the "at sign." AT sign. Not "each" sign. Merriam Webster's Collegiate tenth edition: @ "at; each." But that's just because it's a new dictionary. Old dictionaries don't offer you the choice; @ meant "at." The encircled a evolved as a shorthand notation for the Latin ad, "to" or "at." Four feet of tripe @ 50 cents per foot = menudo. "At" 50 cents per foot. Drop the necessary and clarifying "per foot," and I suppose the @ doubles as "at" and "each," but only because you've forced it to. Whatever else it may mean, @ definitely means "at."

The first person to use @ in an e-mail address was Ray Tomlinson of Bolt, Beranek, and Neuman, also the first person to send an e-mail message (in 1971). I believe his first reply was pornography spam. Tomlinson wrote the e-mail program for the Department of Defense's ARPAnet, the granddaddy of the Internet. Ergo, @ became the Internet standard. If you were an ARPAnetter, you could substitute the word "at" for @ and your mail would still be legal.

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