Some symbols are so widespread that we see them on a daily basis and we just move on. Everyone knows what they mean. We become familiar with most of them before we even set foot into school for the first time.
But how did these symbols start? Where did they come from? Here are fun facts about some every day symbols around us.
& (ampersand )
We see this symbol every day. The moment we see it we mentally read it as “and”. It developed from “ET” – the Latin word for “and”.
+ (plus sign)
Plus sign also stems from the Latin “ET”. You see, in the old days they didn’t have mathematical equations. They would just describe everything in words. One and one equals two. But when you write that in Latin, this “and” becomes “et” and then et started being abbreviated into a symbol + when used for mathematics.
$ (dollar sign)
Even though there is no historic consensus on when and how exactly the dollar sign originated, the theories branch off into two sets: Dollar sign with one vertical strike through the “S” and the dollar sign with two vertical strikes through the “S”. Here is how it may have developed:
The first historical usage of the dollar sign was for the Spanish American peso. It appears in American, British, Canadian and Mexican business correspondence in the 1770s.
Another popular theory is that the dollar sign started as a slash through numeral 8 denoting “pieces of 8” which was a Spanish coin worth 8 reales. But here is a bit of a problem. Eight reales was quite a large sum back then. It would be equivalent to about $80 – $90 in today’s money. So how do you get a change for a drink or two if everyone only has coins worth 8 reales and can’t give you a change when you buy a lunch?
Well, you cut the coin up. This coin was made of pure silver, so its value was the value of silver. Sailors and pirates would split it into 8 pieces, each worth 1 reale so they could pay for drinks and food.
This is one of the relatively rare symbols which can be traced to its exact place and time of origin. It was created in 1557, by Robert Recorde who replaced the words “is equal to” to two long, parallel lines in his book Whetstone of Whitte.
@ (at symbol)
This symbol appeared in usage during Renaissance as a short for “amphora”, a unit of measure for volume. Just like we measure volume in gallons and liters these days, back in those days “amphora”, named after Greek and Roman storage vessels, was how they measured how much wine and olive oil was bought and sold. Hence the shape of the symbol – a letter “a” in a partial circle.
Fast forward to 1971 and ARPANET, a baby that would grow up into the Internet. A young engineer Ray Tomlinson was working on a way to send messages from one server to another. Once that the code was done, a quick problem had to be addressed. How to separate the name of the user for who the message is intended from the name of his server. Ray chose the barely used @ symbol and that is how the email syntax was born as ” username @ (at) whatever server “. Few decades later Twitter came along and added the @ symbol as a prefix for usernames. Let’s see where it goes from here.
# (pound sign or octothorpe)
This symbol had such a weird history of twists and turns that Hollywood just might make a movie about it. It started as “lb”, a shorthand for “libra” (Latin version of pound). Then printers started adding vertical line through “l” so it wouldn’t be confused with number one ( 1 ) and then they started shorting this “lb” into two horizontal and two vertical lines. Later on it was used as a sign for “number”. For example #1 pencil.
Then in 1960s Bell Labs started working on telephones that could interface with computers and automatized phone switchboards. Phone numbers were not enough. So Bell engineers added asterisk (*) and pound sign (#) to the phones.
Fast forward to 2007. Chris Messina suggested that Twitter should join in on the practice of the Internet chat rooms where hashtag was used to prefix group names. However, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams disagreed claiming that it’s “too nerdy”. He preferred that the programming sorts out and groups the tweets. After a while, Twitter realized that users were using hashtags to make some keywords easier to search regardless of what Williams thought of it. And so as of 2009 Twitter started hyperlinking all hashtag terms and the history was made.
The word “asterisk” is derived from Greek for “little star” (aster). In Europe it was used to denote a person’t date of birth. It appeared on Bell phones in the 1960es and then made it to computer keyboards. Because some comic books like Li’l Abner and Peanuts started using asterisks to denote non-verbal actions of characters such as *hug* or *sigh*, younger populations started using the same in the text messages and Internet chat.