How the @ or At Symbol Is Used in Spanish

Ancient Arabic term of measurement gets modern twist

How the @ sign is used in Spanish

ThoughtCo / Melissa Ling

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.

Key Takeaways: @ in Spanish

  • The "at symbol" or @ has been used for centuries in Spanish, which adopted its use for email in imitation of English.
  • The symbol's name, arroba, was originally an Arabic word used in measurements.
  • In modern usage, the @ is sometimes used to indicate explicitly that a gendered word includes both males and females.

Term Came From International Trade

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." You may have heard of the word from the Latin phrase ad astra, meaning "to the stars."

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.

Using the Arroba for Email

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

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 to 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 to boys alone or to 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."

Other Internet Symbols in Spanish

Here are the Spanish names for other symbols common in Internet or computer use:

  • The pound sign or # is most commonly known as the signo de número (number sign), often reduced to numeral. Less common is almohadilla, the word for a small pillow such as a pincushion.
  • The pound sign can be combined with a word such as #this to form a hashtag, although language purists prefer etiqueta, the word for label.
  • The backslash or \ can be called a barra inversa, barra invertida, or diagonal invertida, all of which mean "reverse slash."
  • The asterisk is simply asterisco. The word estrella, or star, is not used.
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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "How the @ or At Symbol Is Used in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 29). How the @ or At Symbol Is Used in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How the @ or At Symbol Is Used in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).