Tim Nott is having an awfully hard time telling fellow e-mailers just where he's at
What do you call the sign that comes up when you press Shift + single quote on a normal keyboard? One of these - @, in fact? I had managed to get through a fair bit of life without calling it anything.

Two things have changed that. One, I referred to it in some copy as an ampersand and, quite correctly, got nailed by a sub-editor. I then asked my favourite English teacher what it was called. She said an ampersand. We both soon admitted the error of our ways and realised that an ampersand is that which unites Marks with Spencer, C with A, and Bradford with Bingley. However, neither of us could think of anything better than the "at sign" for @.

Diligent research - the sort of thing that columnists spend ages at because it is much more interesting than doing real work - uncovered the fact that printers call it the "commercial at". A long and lugubrious-sounding expression, I thought.

The other prong to this minor mid-life crisis was being asked for my e-mail address over the telephone. Written down, it is easy: timn@cix.compulink.uk. I started with the straightforward we-are-all-Internet-aware adults here approach: "It's timn-at-cix-dot-compulink-dot-co-dot-uk."

I realised I was being unduly optimistic when my interlocutor asked me how to spell "dot". We did sort that one out fairly swiftly, but "timn" was now causing problems: "Tim En? Tim Hen? Tim Men?", so I dropped down a cog or two to that valuable standby you hear on all the police soaps. "Suspect is driving a green Cavalier, registration Delta-One-Seven-Six- Alma-Cogan-Tadema". The only trouble with that was, as you may have already realised, I do not really know it. Nor did my interlocutor, and we soon arrived at an irredeemably recursive hopelessness: "T-for-Tango? Can you spell 'Tango' please?" So I tried again, this time using women's names to avoid a journey on a politically incorrect highway to hell: "T-for- Tabitha, I-for-Imogen, M-for-Melissa, N-for-Nigella." Then I got to "@".

"Is that Anthea Tabitha?"

"No, it's all one thing - Anthea with a bit that sticks out at the front and curls right over her head down her back."

There was a long silence at the other end.

"A commercial at," I added, hopefully.

"Can you spell 'commercial'?"

By the sort of coincidence that Arthur Koestler would have died for (oh, did he? sorry), that very same day a French person rang up and the conversation got to the point where she was ready to offer me her e-mail address.

As the e-mail address was on CompuServe, the first bit was just an easy series of numbers; but when we reached the dreaded "@" she used the (to me) delightful term "petit escargot".

Well, I think "little snail" is a lot more jaunty and descriptive than the dreary "commercial at". Can anyone think of a better name for it?