Word of the Day / Krukhit - The 'Go To' Word That Just Wouldn't Fly

Sometimes Israelis just can’t accept the Academy’s dictates.

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It is uncertain who invented the at-sign ("@") that most Israelis insist on calling "shtrudel," even though there is an official word - krukhit (kru-KHIT).

The symbol is first known to have appeared in a Spanish letter written by a Florentine merchant in 1536 on the the prices of goods coming in from Peru.  “There, an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats,” he wrote, using the symbol to denote the amphora - a unit of measurement adopted from the Arabic “ar-rub” - a quarter - corresponding to 25 pounds.

Later during the 17th century the sign was used in French in ledgers and other commercial lists to denote something that cost a certain price per unit, as opposed to all together. It derived from the French word for “at” - “a” with an accent (e.g., three apples for $1 as opposed to three apples for $3). In the 18th century it crawled its way into English.

Meanwhile over in Hungary, a pastry made of crispy thin layers and a tasty filling was being invented, which gained considerable popularity in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 18th century. It was called strudel, from the German word for whirlpool due to the shape of its cross section.

The cake was evidently popular among the nascent Hebrew-speaking community in early 20th century Palestine, since in 1913 the Committee of the Hebrew Language, a precursor to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, decided that the German word strudel was being used entirely too much and that a Hebrew word for the delicacy was needed. They came up with the Hebrew word krukhit, derived from the root k-r-kh - to wrap.

However, it didn't fly. Krukhit was used little, if at all, and Hebrew speakers clung to to strudel as the name of the pastry.

The at-sign, meanwhile, found its way onto typewriters and then computer keyboards, sitting above the numeral 2, where it was hardly ever used. It might have gone the way of the cent symbol and died off completely were it not for an engineer from Boston, who completely changed its fate.

“During the summer and autumn of 1971, I was part of a small group of programmers who were developing a time-sharing system called TENEX that ran on Digital PDP-10 computers,” Ray Tomlinson has said about his role in the invention of email while working as an engineer at BBN Technologies. He was making improvements to an email program called SNDMSG.

Tomlinson’s innovation was to integrate the single-computer mailing system with the computer networking system he was working on. “It remained to provide a way to distinguish local mail from network mail. I chose to append an ‘at’ sign and the host name to the user's (login) name," he explained.

Why did he choose the "at" sign? Why not - it made sense, he says. In English the "at" sign was used to indicate unit price: “I used the at sign to indicate that the user was ‘at’ some other host rather than being local.”

This convention was adopted in later email protocols.

The use of email gradually grew during the 1970s and in 1982 it was adopted in Israel, too. Suddenly, a Hebrew word for the at-sign was needed. Israelis quickly settled on “strudel,” because the "at" sign looks remarkably like a cross-section of the flakey, usually-apple-filled, pastry.

But “strudel” isn’t a Hebrew word so the Academy of the Hebrew Language came up with a Hebrew name for the symbol.

If Israelis think it looks like a strudel, they reasoned, let them use the Hebrew word for strudel - kurkhit.

Since then, while no one would call the pastry kurkhit, many Israelis use this word for the symbol, which is gaining in popularity and may one day replace its German predecessor.

Krukhit: It's a wrap.Credit: iPhone image
It could have been worse: The snail could have been chosen as the muse for Hebrew speakers, rather than strudel cake.Credit: Reuters
This is the flaky pastry that Israelis stubbornly refuse to call krukhit.Credit: Doram Gaunt

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