John Larrysson Column: Money Symbols (2 of 2)

This week I will finish exploring the more common English symbols used with money. Last week I covered: $ and ¢. Their origins were Spanish and Latin. This week it is £ and @.


£ or lb


Like the cent symbol (¢), the pound symbol (£) is not part of Hong Kong English. It is the symbol for the British pound. It is written before the number in the same manner as the dollar. (Or rather since the British pound is an older symbol in English, the dollar is written in the same manner as the British pound.) Non-UK keyboards often lack this £ symbol, but it can usually be cut and pasted from 'character map' and similar functions on most computers. Alternatively the abbreviation lb can be used. Which raised the question, how can L or lb be an abbreviation for the word pound? They don't have the same letters!

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Long ago the British pound was supposed to be equivalent to a pound (0.453592 kg) of silver. This is why it is often referred to as "pound sterling" meaning a pound of silver penny coins which were called sterling (about 250 of them). When the currency was standardized a pound was worth 240 pence. The British pound is not worth what it used to be worth, proof that inflation is not new.

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The symbol £ is a stylized L representing the Latin word librum, (plural: libra) which means a pound weight. The small letters l and b are the abbreviation for librum. The word pound is just the English word for librum. Long ago in England, important records, such as those involving a lot of money used Latin.

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Today this is the email symbol. Some people are surprised to be told that it originally involves money and not computers. Long ago this symbol was used by English speaking businessmen and accountants as a short form of "at the cost of" shortened to "at" and then "@". (The Spanish and Portuguese had a similar, but unrelated, symbol for arroba, a unit of weight.)



10 litres of apple juice @ $11.50/litre costs $115 net.


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The @ symbol almost disappeared when the first typewriters and computers were invented, since most of them did not include the poor lonely @ symbol. However when email was being invented by Ray Tomlinson, he needed something to separate the user id (example: JohnLarryson) from the computer’s domain name (example: He was using a Model 33 teletype machine which did include the @ symbol. So a quick glance at his keyboard suggested the @ symbol. As email became popular the older use of the symbol was quickly forgotten. Of course other languages did not have the @ symbol and so needed new English computer keyboards when they started using email.

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Spammers, people who send junk email, often search the internet for this symbol in order to find more email addresses. Sometimes people who need to put their email address on a webpage write it in the long way and assume their readers are smart enough to make the change. Alternatively some email providers are much better at filtering spam than others.


[email protected]


Example at


Today these symbols are usually used without any thought to what they actually meant. Understanding their origin helps understand the messy English language.

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Related Article: John Larrysson Column: Money Symbols (1 of 2)

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.

Ray Tomlinson's picture:

ASR Model 33 teletype machine: