Where it’s @

Christopher Howse chews the f@ in today’s Telegraph:

The most annoying department of arithmetic when I was a little boy was called practice. If I had known that practice had another meaning, “deception”, I would have found the name right and just, for the whole subject seemed to be trial and error heaped up like spillikins. Nothing was explained, but there were plenty of supposedly helpful rules to memorise, such as: “To find the value of 100 articles, take as many pence and twice as many shillings as there are farthings in the price, and add them together.” What?


[T]he trouble came when confronting a sum that demanded the answer to “364½ do. broad cloth @ 15s 3d do.” What did it mean by “do”? Did it mean, “Do the arithmetic”? Or was do. short for dozen? It never occurred to me that do. was short for ditto, and that it therefore meant “yards”, which the sum above it in the textbook had been asking about.

And what was this mysterious sign @? Perhaps someone had explained it and I’d been off with a “bilious attack” (in the quaint phrase still in use), as I had been when they explained what a chassis was in motor manufacture. I never did find out what a chassis was.

So the @ became for me a sigil of fear, a scarlet letter, a mark of the Beast. That particular fear subsided at the next school up, because by then no one worried about how much a gross of kid gloves @ £5 6s 8d a dozen cost. Gloves were out, practice was out and, from 1971, £sd was out.

It looked as though @ would soon follow them. On foreign typewriters it did disappear, which is why it is only to be found on keyboards in Latin countries under the Alt Gr of some random key [Ah, so that’s why. The penny (d ,not p) has just dropped – MJ]. But something unsuspected was happening in 1971, just as the housewives of Britain were wondering how many new pee there were in 3s 4d. (Since 3s 4d is exactly a sixth of a pound, it does not convert to an exact number of new pence, but hovers awkwardly between 16½p and 17p.)

The unsuspected act was the finding of a new life for @, and,it is Ray Tomlinson, who has just died aged 74, whom we have to thank.,He did later confess that he had forgotten that @ was used in one computing system as a character that erased a line, which caused much grief. But it was a brilliant stroke to find this typewriter key – dusty as a box of gas-mantles in a hardware shop – and use it for what it claimed to mean.

This piece got me wondering when people first started saying ditto, and why they seem to have stopped. Wikipedia to the rescue:

The word,ditto,comes from the,Tuscan language, where it is the past participle of the verb,dire,(to say), with the meaning of “said”, as in the locution “the said story”. The first recorded use of ditto with this meaning in English occurs in 1625.[2],Early evidence of ditto marks can be seen on a cuneiform tablet of the,Neo-Assyrian,period (934 – 608 BC) where two vertical marks are used in a table of synonyms to repeat text,[3],while in China the corresponding mark is two horizontal lines (?)

It’s a Super Tuscan, put to good use. I remember as a child reading the in one of the Jennings books about a schoolboy who, on being told to write his name in each shoe, wrote “Jennings” in one and “Ditto” in the other. The Jennings books are quite out of fashion and seem rather quaint, but not as quaint as the advertisement that Wikipedia prints as an illustration of the use of “ditto”:

I’d add Ditto Fatto, which is what you get from too much Ditto Suet.

“Do., do.” is as dead as a dodo, and as for “&c, &c” — translated in this context as “nudge, nudge, wink wink”– it is one with Nineveh and Tyre. The past truly is a foreign country – I can’t imagine the youth of today buying hosiery with their casks of prime suet. And what happens when they run out of &c?,


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