Before the age of the internet, you likely never noticed some of the keyboard symbols that you now use all the time. Most of us still don’t know the actual history behind these now-ubiquitous symbols, the reasons they exist, or how they ended up in your email addresses and URLs. It’s actually fascinating once you start digging. It turns out that type itself dates back to the early days of civilisation. So even in cyberspace, there are a few paleolithic surprises.
Take the @ sign, for example. Fast Company recently published a comprehensive and compelling history of the symbol — from its origins amongst bookkeepers who used “at” to indicate how many items they were buying or selling, to its current ubiquity a symbol for “you” and your online identity. “It was mundane for a long time,” explained punctuation and symbol expert Keith Houston, “only to undergo a startling transition during the beginning of the computer revolution that put it at the centre of the way we think about the Internet.”
And it’s not just the @ symbol that has a sordid past. Many of the symbols that you’re jamming into your keyboard on a daily basis had rich past lives before they became internet-age fixtures.
✱ — The Asterisk
No, it was not the popular, fearless French cartoon warrior that inspired this symbol. It’s an old, old symbol that pops up in all kinds of alphabets. It’s even in the Bible. However, it’s also a big deal in computer science and programming languages. Known as a “wildcard character,” the asterisk is used in Unix and other command line interfaces to stand in for other letters, so that you don’t have to spell a word exactly right for it to be returned in a search. It’s used as a substitute for other letters elsewhere, too, like when typing a password or pointing to a footnote. In some programming languages it’s used to separate working code from comments.
§ — Section
If you’ve ever read a legal document you’ll immediately recognise this symbol for its original, eponymous use. It’s supposed to mark a new section in a document and provide an easy reference point when searching for a section. However, its relative obscurity has made it popular in the virtual world of video games. Some games, like Sim City 3, use the section sign as a virtual currency symbol, likely because it looks sort of like a dollar sign but is different enough not to make people think they’re spending real money. It’s also used in Minecraft to change the colour of text. But really it’s relevant because it has hilarious nicknames like “the squiggle horse” and “the legal doughnut.”
$ — The Dollar Sign
This one’s familiar! It is also very old and very fabled. Without going into the whole history of the dollar — a derivative of the 14th-century currency known as the “thaler” — the “S” plus stripes thing happened is generally believed to have come about a few centuries later when the United States was establishing its independence from the British Pound. The two competing theories are that the “$” sign is a simplification of an “U” with an “S” superimposed. Another theory contends that the US created the symbol by remixing the abbreviation for the peso. (See below.) Either way, it’s now a staple of both ASCII art and rapper names.
© — The Copyright Symbol
This is another purely American invention. When Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1909, there was a fair amount of debate over how artists and authors would indicated that their work was copyrighted. The lawyerly legislators wanted them to spell out the full word “copyright” on the work, while the artists said that just their names would suffice. The “C” with a circle around it was a compromise. That was over a century ago, and there’s now a big movement to reform that law or throw it out the window altogether. Creative Commons is an organisation that’s been on the front lines of this battle, encouraging all content creators to assign one of six Creative Commons licenses to their work. Quite appropriately, the symbol used is very similar to the traditional legal Copyright. Instead of one “C”, though, there are two, plus a few other symbols to indicate the specifics of the licence. Below is one of the more restrictive Creative Commons licenses.
& — The Ampersand
Officially known as a logogram, the Ampersand is more colloquially known as the “and” symbol. And boy is it old. Dating back to a century before Jesus, the script was originally a combination of the Latin letters for “e” and “t” — or “et,” Latin for “and.”
Over the next two millenia, the symbol evolved and evolved, and even today there are still dozens of different versions. In modern day computer programming, the ampersand is used in almost every programming language, and it’s most often seen in URLs, where it’s used to introduce new entities.
If only the Romans knew what they were starting. However, as the written word gives way to the keyboard as well as the ones and zeroes behind it, we have to wonder how or even if these symbols will continue to evolve. Are we stuck with our swirly @ sign and clunky © symbol? Or will symbology keep pace with technology?
The latter seems more likely. After the Library of Congress accepted a translation of Moby Dick written entirely in emoji, anything’s possible.