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Ampersand: The Little Symbol that Could

ampersand

Having lasted through the Ages, the ampersand, with its storied past, is making a comeback in modern times. We use it in our logos; it can be found all around us. Ever wondered where it came from?

Evolution of the Ampersand
Evolution of the Ampersand Ligature

Etymology: The Long History of the Ampersand

et ligature - Insular Script
Insular Script

The shape itself predates the word – ampersand – by more than 1500 years. Having made its debut in the 1st Century, Roman scribes, who wrote in cursive, had over time began to scribble et (Latin for and), to become the combined letters denoting the ligature we still use to symbolize and in modern English.

In Roman cursive, ligatures were quite popular. Today’s ampersand symbol is reminiscent of the 9th Century’s Carolingian minuscule, which was the calligraphic standard allowing the Latin alphabet to be legible by Europe’s literate (800-1200 BC).  Since the ampersand’s roots date back to Roman times, languages using a variation of the Latin alphabet make use of the ampersand in their modern language.

It’s Slurred History

modern ampersand
The modern ampersand is almost identical to that of the Carolingian minuscule. The italic ampersand, to the right, is originally a later et ligature.

Once known as the 27th letter of the alphabet, the & symbol was found at the end of the alphabet: X, Y, Z, &. In the 1800s, while reciting their beloved ABCs, school children would reach the symbol at the end of their alphabet, saying: X, Y, Z, and per se and.

Per se denotes “by itself” in Latin.

Naturally, over time, the children slurred together the words, much like the Romans squished together the letters, leaving us with our modern-day name: ampersand.

A mondegreen is a blending of words with a shared homophony.

Modern Resurgence

First introduced to dictionaries in 1837, the ampersand has become an integral part of our modern language. Carrying its Carolingian minuscule roots with it, the ampersand has hit a popular resurgence with our 140-character limitations on Twitter as well as our growing dependency on text messaging, or as the kids call it: texting.

Surprisingly, the ampersand isn’t the only letter of the alphabet that has fallen to the wayside, nor does it come without rules for its usage. Stay tuned, I will tackle these tidbits in forthcoming posts.

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References:

  1. Oxford English Dictionary, online database: Ampersand entry.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, online database: A per se, n. entry.
  3. Wikipedia.org: Ampersand entry.