Let’s talk about the ampersand. This little guy is far and away my favorite letterform. It can appear in a wide variety of styles and variations but always comes through with a strong graphic impact. I dare say there isn’t another character that could stand alone and still say as much as the mighty ampersand, and do so with such style and panache to boot! I mean, look at all those huge corporate brands that this character holds together. It doubles as the glue and focal point for countless corporate logos and identities.
It dawned on me, while writing a particularly satisfying ampersand in my notes the other day, that despite all my affection for the ampersand, I actually didn’t know anything about it. So I set out on a mission to enlighten myself on the history of this curiously named character. What I found was pretty interesting, hence why I’m writing this post right now.
The shape of the ampersand far outdates its name. The form originates from 1st century Roman scribes. The scribes wrote in cursive; when they penned the Latin word “et,” which means “and,” the “e” and the “t” connected to form the symbol that eventually became known as the ampersand. Certain versions today still closely mirror the Latin origins. The typeface Caslon showcases a good example of this.
As time passed, this symbol that the word “et” formed went on to represent “and” in English as well. In fact, the ampersand used to be the official 27th character in the English alphabet. When school children in the early 1800s were learning the alphabet, they would end their recital of the ABC’s with the “&.” In order for this recital to not sound confusing by ending “X, Y, Z, and,” they instead would say “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so really what they were saying was “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.” As you’ve probably already figured out, “and per se and” eventually morphed into “ampersand.” Much in the same way “L, M, N, O, P” is often slurred into “elemenopee” now days.
I found it particularly surprising that the “&” was an official character of the English alphabet. In fact, I’d like to petition that we bring it back. We could make room for it by kicking that freeloader “Q” to the curb. The “&” is way more useful than “Q” anyway. “Q” doesn’t even have the confidence to stand on its own. It always has to bring along its pal “U” to help out. “Kw” is ready to step in and take over for all duties that “Qu” performs if we decide to go ahead with this trade. I for one think it’s time we welcome the ampersand back into the fold where it belongs.
I hope you found this little history spotlight of the ampersand as interesting as I did. It makes you wonder what other seemingly ordinary things we encounter on a day-to-day basis have unique stories to tell. Now go out and impress all your friends with way more knowledge than you ever intended to have about the most interesting letterform in the world, the ampersand.