Shortly after I arrived in Barcelona in 2005, I was pointed to Spain’s equivalent of Craisglist, Loquo. (There are actual Craigslist sites for Spain, but those are mostly used by foreigners.) On Loquo, I was looking for intercambios (language exchanges) so that I could rapidly access my stored Spanish and jump a level in class.
The personal ads were bewildering. It took me a little while to figure out why: I had never dealt with anybody my own age in Spain, so I had no idea how young people spoke. (The reason I didn’t have friends when I was little and summering in Spain was that my grandparents lived in the middle of nowhere. The whole property was literally surrounds by stone walls and I was way too busy running around in the forest with the dogs and chasing cows and catching grasshoppers to notice that there weren’t other kids around. It was glorious.)
So there I was in my first cyber café, trying to figure out what the hell people were writing about. There were dozens of words and phrases that I’d never heard before and shorthand that I just couldn’t even begin to comprehend, but the use of the @ symbol was the most immediately troubling. What the hell was a chic@?
I asked at school the next day and learned that in Spain, the @ was used to gender-neutralize nouns. Instead of saying girl or guy [chica, chico], you could end the noun with an @ which, handily, looks like both an a and an o. Knowledge!
Learn other things
→ In Spanish, @ is called arroba from the Classic Arabic rub‘ الربع [a quarter part]. I can’t figure out how something that initially denoted a weight was adopted for this purpose.
→ In French, @ is arobase, which comes directly from the Spanish use. Very interesting, that.
→ Despite my feelings about the Washington Post (it’s a shitty paper and probably isn’t going to get better), around the time I was discovering this new use of @, they ran a funny story about other names the symbol has around the world. If only I could get away with saying myname-monkey-chasing-its-tail-gmail-dot-com on a regular basis.