Moon’s Ear

What do you call the symbol @?

at sign

I would call it at or at sign. Other names are available, and it’s used in various ways.

The oldest known appearence of @ in writing was in 1345 in a Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle by Constantinos Manasses. It was used as the first letter of the word Amen – @мин (@min) in the manuscript.

In Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese @ has long been used to refer to a unit of weight know as arroba, which is equal to 25 pounds. This name comes from the Arabic الربع (alrubue – quarter).

In Venitian @ was used to represent the word anfora (amphora), a unit of weight and volume equivalent to the standard amphora.

In accounting, @ means “at a rate of” or “at the price of”, for example, 5 widgets @ £5 = £25.

These days it most commonly appears in email addresses, a usage that dates back to 1971, when it was introduced by Ray Tomlinson of BBN Technologies. Online it may be omitted or replaced when listing email addresses to trip up spam programs trawling for email adresses. That’s why I give my email as feedback[at]omniglot[dot]com, or as an image. This practise is known as address munging. A better way to trip up the spam bots is apparently

Some names for @ in English include: ampersat, asperand, at, atmark, at symbol, commercial at, amphora and strudel.

Ampersat comes from the phrase “and per se at”, which means “and by itself @”, and was how it was originally referred to in English.

Some interesting names for @ in other languages include:

  • Afrikaans: aapstert (monkey tail)
  • Armenian: շնիկ (shnik – puppy)
  • Belarusian: сьлімак (sʹlimak – helix, snail)
  • Chinese: 小老鼠 (xiǎo lǎoshǔ – little mouse)
  • Danish & Swedish: snabel-a (elephant’s trunk A)
  • Finnish: kissanhäntä (cat’s tail), miuku mauku (miaow-meow)
  • Greek: παπάκι (papáki – duckling)
  • Kazakh: айқұлақ (aıqulaq – moon’s ear)
  • Korean: 골뱅이 (golbaeng-i – whelk)
  • Polish: małpa (monkey, ape)
  • Welsh: malwoden (snail)

Do you know any other interesting names for this symbol?

Sources and further information:

Oof! What a Hash!

What do you call the symbol #?

I would call it a hash or hashtag, but quite a few other names are available, including number, number sign, number mark, pound sign, hash sign, hash mark, crosshatch, crunch, fence, flash, garden fence, garden gate, gate, grid, hak, hex, mesh, octothorp, oof, pig-pen, punch mark, rake, scratch, scratch mark, tic-tac-toe and unequal.

l-b ligature

It is thought that it comes from the symbol , a ligature of l and b which stands for the Latin libra pondo (pound weight). Over time it became simplified until it morphed into #. The image is a stylized version of this symbol [source].

# is described as “number” in a treatise on bookkeeping from 1853. It was included the Remington Standard typewriter keyboard from about 1886, and was used in teleprinter codes. In 1968 it was included on touch-tone telephone keypads, and started to be used more extensively in the early 1980s. It was used to label groups and topics on internet relay chat (IRC) from about 1988. This lead Chris Messina, an American blogger and consultant, to propose its use to tag topics on Twitter in 2007. He became known as the inventor of the hashtag [source].

The name octothorp, which was apparently invented at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1968. Variants include octothorpe, octathorp and octatherp. The name combines octo- (eight) from Latin, with the English thorp (hamlet, village), as it looks like a village surrounded by eight fields. Other stories about the origins of this name are available.

Sources and further information:

Roses (薔薇)

The Japanese word 薔薇 (bara) means rose. If you asked random Japanese people to write these kanji (characters), many would struggle. However, they would be able to read them.

Rose, バラ,

The word for rose is normally written with katakana – バラ, and the kanji version 薔薇 is not in everyday use, so it’s not surprising if people cannot write it. These kanji can also be pronounced shōbi or sōbi.

薔 (mizutade) on its own means Persicaria hydropiper, water pepper or marshpepper knotweed (see below). It is also known as 柳蓼 (yanagitade) in Japan, and can be used as an ingredient in various dishes such as sashimi, tempura, sushi and wasabi.


薇 (zenmai) means Osmunda japonica, a.k.a. Japanese/Asian royal fern (see below). Parts of the plant are used as a vegetable in parts of China and Japan.

Osmunda japonica

Other words that Japanese people might struggle to write in kanji include 忍者 (ninja), 肘 (hiji = elbow), 挨拶 (aisatsu = greeting), 帽子 (bōshi = hat) 餅 (mochi = sticky rice cake), as you can see in this video:

This phenomena is common among Japanese (and Chinese) speakers who use computers, phones and other devices to type and input text rather than writing it by hand. You could call it character amnesia or kanji amnesia, or perhaps 漢字忘失 (kanji bōshitsu = “forgeting kanji”) in Japanese. I just made this up. Is there an official/standard term for it?

This doesn’t happen in languages with alphabetic or syllabic writing systems. Even if you do most of your writing on computers and other electronic gizmos, and your handwriting is poor, you don’t forget how to write any of the letters. You might forget or not know how to spell particular words, especially in languages like English with inconsistent and eccentic spelling systems, but you can at least have a go, and spell check and auto correct help.

People in Japan are apparently starting to realise that it is more important to be able to recognize kanji rather than learning to write them all by hand, at least according to this article on Tofugu. More kanji have been added to the everyday use list as they are easy to input on phones and other devices, even if they are hard to write by hand.

Perhaps the ability to write kanji by hand will become something that only calligraphers and other specialists do, while other people just input them on electronic gadgets.

When I was learning Chinese and Japanese, in the pre-interweb / smartphone age, I spent a lot of time writing the characters by hand, and found this helped me to remember them. I still write them down sometimes and enjoy doing so, but I mostly write them on my phone or computer, often using voice input.

By the way, here’s a rose-related song by Deai, a Russo-Japanese duo, called 百万本のバラ / Миллион алых роз (Million Scarlet Roses):

Script Families

Languages are classified into families, meaning that all the languages within a particular family are known to have or thought to have developed from a common ancestor.

Language family

For example, the Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian, all developed from Latin. They are one branch of the Indo-European language family, along with Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Indo-Aryan and other languages. It is believed that they all developed from a common ancestor known as Proto-Indo-European, which has been reconstructed.

Some languages have no known relatives and are known as language isolates. Examples include Basque, Ainu and Hadza.

Writing systems can also be classified into families. For example the Latin, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets all developed from the Phoenician script, which developed from the Proto-Sinaitic / Proto-Canaanite script, which was based on the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Hieratic scripts.

Language family

In fact, most alphabetic scripts in use today come from the same Ancient Egyptian roots, or were inspired by or based on scripts from those roots.

Sometimes there is some debate about which family writings systems belong to, and whether they can be considered separate scripts, or variants forms of one script.

For example, there are many variants of the Latin script, such as Roman Cursive, Rustic Capitals, Basque-style lettering, Carolingian Minuscule, Fraktur, Irish Uncial, Merovingian and the Visigothic Script.

There are also many different scripts that are or were used in the Philippines. Some are considered regional variants of the Baybayin / Tagalog script, while others are considered separate scripts. For example, variants of Baybayin include Badlit, Kulitan and Basahan.

Are they separate scripts, or different versions of the Latin/Baybayin script? Does it matter? Who decides?

I’m putting together an index of writing systems on Omniglot arranged into families. It’s not quite finished yet though.

Cave Paintings Deciphered?

There have been a number of articles recently about how the meaning behind ancient cave paintings has been discovered. For example, The article in The Guardian has the headline “Amateur archaeologist uncovers ice age ‘writing’ system” with the subheading “‘Lunar calendar’ found in caves may predate equivalent record-keeping systems by at least 10,000 years”.

lascaux 028

The amateur archaeologist in question is Ben Bacon, and he worked with academics from Durham University and University College London. The cave paintings have been found in France and Spain, and in other parts of the world, and date from between about 10,000 and 73,000 years ago [source]. They depict various animals, people and other things, and include recurring patterns of dots, lines and other marks. The researchers believe that the marks represent a kind of lunar calendar which shows the birth cycles of the animals. Other information may be encoded in the paintings as well, however this is not yet understood.

This is not a writing system that represents language, as far as we known, but is a form of visual communication.

More information about this story:

Miss Pelling

Recently I was asked to share a post about The Most Misspelled English Word in Every Country and State, Based on Two Billion Tweets.

The most misspelled word in every country and state

However, on a list of the 100 Most Commonly Misspelled Words on, foreign and miniscule do appear, but coolly and promise don’t.

Miniscule is in fact a “disputed spelling variant of minuscule”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It as been around since the late 19th century and often appears in print, although is “widely regarded as an error”.

This got me thinking – if a word is widely misspelled / misspelt*, is this a sign of language change? Maybe one day the misspelling will be accepted as an alternative way to spell the word, or even as the standard way to spell it.

*misspelt is used in the UK, though has become less widely-used since the 1970s, while misspelled is used in most English-speaking countries, including the UK [source].

English spelling is not entirely fixed, and some words may have more than one standard spelling, particularly in different varieties of English.

According to Wikipedia, “Spelling is a set of conventions that regulate the way of using graphemes (writing system) to represent a language in its written form … Spelling is one of the elements of orthography, and highly standardized spelling is a prescriptive element.”

Standardized / standardised spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon that developed along with dictionaries, universal education, literacy and language academies. It is enforced by teachers, proofreaders, editors and pedants.

In the past, spelling was very much a matter of personal choice. For example, there are six known signatures written by William Shakespeare, each of which is spelled differently: Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and William Shakspeare [source]. In printed works his name appears as Shake‑speare, Shakeſpeare, Shak‑speare and Shakeſpere. The Shakespeare spelling became popular from the 1860s [source].

Does spelling matter?

It does, at least in formal writing. In informal writing, it may not be so important, as long as your message is clear. In fact, non-standard spellings might be preferred in some contexts. They are certainly a popular way to make brandnames distinct – Kwik Fit, Krispy Kreme, etc.


Recently I was sent details of a image-based communication system that is being developed by some friends of mine at KomunIKON. It’s known as IKON, and according to their website:

IKON is an easy, intuitive, international and transcultural visual language. It is a structured system of graphical communication that combines icons and linguistics.

By being fun and creative, IKON has applications in different fields, from communication technology to graphic design, education, product merchandise and humanitarian crisis support.

Here are some examples – see if you can work out what they mean:

Example sentence in IKON

Example sentence in IKON

Example sentence in IKON

All the examples on the KomunIKON website, and the ones they sent to me, include English labels under each image. The word order for each one is based on English, but apparently “the IKON language is very flexible, so the grammatical explanations that we offer here are meant to show some ideas behind our icons, but they are not rigid rules to be learnt, anyone can use the language as they prefer, as far as the receiver understands.”

So we have a visual communication system without grammatical conventions. That doesn’t sound like a language to me. What do you think?


I discovered the other day the the exclamation mark (!), which is apparently known as an exclamation point in American English, has a number of other names. When it was first introduced by printers in the 15th century, it was known as a sign of admiration or exclamation or the note of admiration in English.

In the early 20th century it was known as an ecphoneme [source]. A related word is eroteme, which is another name for the question mark (?), and comes from the Ancient Greek ἐρώτημα (erṓtēma – question), from ερωτώ (erotó – to ask) [source].

In 1950s American typesetting manuals it was referred to as a bang. Related punctuation marks are the interrobang (‽), a combination of an exclamation mark and question mark that was invented in 1962 by Martin K. Speckter, an American advertising executive [source], and the gnaborretni (⸘), an inverted interrobang [source].

Printers might call it a screamer, gasper, slammer or startler.

British hackers apparently call it, or called it, a shriek or pling, which is my favourite name for this punctuation mark.

In Welsh the exclamation mark is known as a ebychnod, from ebychu (to exclaim) and nod (mark), or rhyfeddnod, from rhyfedd (strange, odd) and nod.

In Armenian the equivalent of the exclamation mark (see below) is known as a Բացականչական նշան (Bats’akanch’akan nshan) or “exclamatory mark/sign” or “screamer”.

Here are some exclamation marks in other alphabets:

Exclamation marks in various alphabets

What is the exclamation mark called in other languages?

Here’s a video I made last week about the word exclamation:


離れる (hanareru)

The Japanese word 離れる (hanareru) means to be separated, to be apart, to be distant​; to leave, to go away​; to leave (a job, etc), to quit, to give up​; to lose connection with; to drift away from​ [source].

It seems quite an appropriate word for this year, and the winner of this year’s kanji invention contest came up with a new kanji to represent these ideas (see the image). It’s pronounced hanarete suwaru or za and means ‘seated apart’ or ‘social distance’.

Social distancing is also ソーシャルディスタンス (sōsharudisutansu) in Japanese.

The new character is based on 座 (suwaru / za) with one of the 人 (hito – person) characters moved to be more distant from the other. 座 means seat, place; position, status; gathering, party, company; stand, pedestal, platform [source].

The kanji contest or, 創作漢字コンテスト (sōsaku kanji kontesuto), is sponsored by the Sankei Newspaper (産経新聞社) and the Shizuka Shirakawa Memorial Institute for Oriental Characters and Culture (白川静記念東洋文字文化研究所) at Ritsumeikan University (立命館大学). It has been held annually for the past 11 years. Over 26,000 entries were submitted this year – mainly from Japan, and some from Taiwan as well, and the winner was Akinobu Yamaguchi (山口明伸) from Yokohama. You’d think there were more than enough kanji already, but obviously not.

I heard about this via Facebook, and it got me wondering if I could come up with any new kanji or hanzi. Have you thought of any new kanji?

Spelling Reform

Yesterday I was sent another alternative orthography for English. I receive them quite often, usually for English, but sometimes for other languages. Some involve only minor changes to the current system, while others involve significant changes, and often lots of diacritics and/or extra letters.

Spelling bee

I’m also sent adaptations of other alphabets for English (and other languages), and original constructed scripts, some of which use the standard spelling system, and others use reformed/improved versions. I’m more inclinded to add the constructed and adapated scripts rather then the alternative spelling systems, if I think they are sufficiently interesting, original and elegant.

Here’s is an example of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in several alternative orthographies for English, which appear on Omniglot.

This is the original text:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

New English (Nū Iŋglıx)
This is a more logical and consistent spelling for English invented by Richard Parry.

Ōl hyūmən bī’ıŋz ā bōn frī and īkwəl ın dıgnıtī and ruıts. Ðeı ā ındaod wıđ rīzən and konxəns and xưd akt təwōdz wun ənuđə ın ə spırıt ov bruđəhưd.

Tower Orthography (Tawyr Oorthaagryfii)
This is was invented by Timothy Patrick Snyder and Rebecca Spatz with the aim of making a simple and phonetic system of writing.

Ol hjuumanz ar boorn frij and ikwol in dignitij and raits. Dhej ar indawd with riizon and kancints and cud akt twardz wyn ynydhyr in y spirit yv brydhyrhud.

Expressive English Alphabet (IKSPꞋΣSIϽ IИGLIƧ ΛLҒⱭBΣꞆ.)
This is was created by Marcel Burrows. It is designed to have one letter for each sound, and to allow people from any part of the world to write in their own accent.


Here are some others that I decided not to add to Omniglot:

The Script (no other name supplied)
This was devised by Max Khovanski and seeks to make spelling completely unambiguous, and cuts out as many unnecessary letters as possible to improve typing and writing efficiency.

Āāl hūman bēings ar born frē and ēkwal in digniti and rīghts. They ar endawd widh rēson and kons’enc and shúd act tuuwāārds oun anudher in ā spirit of brudherhúd.

Reformed English (Reformd İnglɪʃ)
This was devised by Andy B. to explore the idea of a neatly and consistently formulated English spelling reform.

Ɔl hyuman biyiŋs ɔr born fri and ikwal ɪn dɪgnɪti and rɔits. Ðei ɔr endawd wɪþ rizon and kɔnʃens and ʃʊd akt towards wʌn anʌðr ɪn a spɪrɪt ʌv brʌðrhʊd.

New English (Nū Iŋglıx)
A more logical and consistent spelling for English invented by Richard Parry. There are two versions: the full orthography (shown first), and the new orthography (shown second).

Ool hyuumeun bii’ingz aa boon frii and iikweul in dignitii and ruits. Nhei aa indaod winh riizeun and konxeuns and xu’d akt teuwoodz wun eununheu in eu spirit ov brunheuhu’d.

Ōl hyūmən bī’ıŋz ā bōn frī and īkwəl ın dıgnıtī and ruıts. Ðeı ā ındaod wıđ rīzən and konxəns and xưd akt təwōdz wun ənuđə ın ə spırıt ov bruđəhưd.

To be practical, and easy to type, I think English spelling reforms should stick to the existing letters, rather than adding accented letters, and/or borrowing letters from the IPA or other alphabets. Using the regular aspects of the current orthography might be a good idea as well, rather than coming up with new spellings.

There are alternative ways to write some words in informal contexts, especially online, such as thru for through, that could be used.

What are your views on spelling reform for English, or other languages?

What do you think of the alternative spelling systems I’ve shared here?