How The @ Symbol Came To Be Used in Spanish

Term Comes From Arabic

arroba @ symbol
La arroba. (The "at" symbol.). Mambembe Arts & Crafts / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Spanish word for the @ or "at" symbol, arroba, as well as the symbol itself have been part of Spanish for centuries, since before email was even invented.

Arroba is believed to have come from the Arabic ar-roub, meaning "one fourth." At least as early as the 16th century, the word was commonly used as a term of measurement in international trade, especially in the region that includes Italy, France and the Iberian Peninsula.

Today, an arroba is still a unit of weight, although the amount varies from about 10.4 to 12.5 kilograms (about 23 to 27.5 pounds), depending on the region. Arroba also came to refer to various liquid measures varying from region to region. Although such measurements aren't standard or official, they still get some local usage.

The arroba has long been sometimes written as @, which is a kind of stylized a. It came to Spanish, like most Spanish vocabulary, from Latin, where it probably was used by scribes as a quick-to-write combination of the a and the d for the common preposition ad, whose meanings included "toward," "to" and "on."

As in English, the @ symbol also came to be used in commercial documents in indicating the cost of individual items. So a receipt could say something like "5 botellas @ 15 pesos" to indicate that five bottles were sold at 15 pesos each.

The @ symbol was first used in email addresses by an American engineer in 1971.

When Spanish speakers began using email, it became a natural step to simply use the term arroba, thus putting a word from the days of Columbus into the lexicon of the computer age.

The term la a comercial is also sometimes used to refer to the symbol, just as it can be referred to in English as "the commercial a." 

It is not uncommon to use the word ​arroba when writing e-mail addresses so they are less likely to be copied by spam robots. Thus if I were trying to slightly obfuscate my address, or if I were using some sort of a typewriter or device that couldn't handle the standard symbol, my e-mail address would be aboutspanish arroba comcast.net.

Another Use for the Arroba

Modern Spanish also has another use for the arroba. It is sometimes used as a combination of a and o to refer both male and female persons. For example ​muchach@s could be used as the equivalent of muchachos y muchachas (boys and girls), and latin@ could be used to refer to either a male or female person from Latin America. In standard, traditional Spanish, muchachos, the masculine plural, can refer boys alone or to both boys and girls at the same time. Muchachas refers to girls, but not boys and girls at the same time.

This usage of the @ has not been approved by the Royal Spanish Academy, and it is seldom found in mainstream publications except perhaps in help-wanted ads to show that a person of either sex could be hired. It tends to be used most in feminist-friendly publications and in academia, although it also has some use in social media.

You might also see the x used in a similar way, so that latinx could mean "latino o latina."