The ampersand. Swoopy, popular with designers, and weirdly tricky to hand write. But where does it come from? Why is it called the ampersand and not something more literal, maybe something like “and sign” or “and symbol”?
The Ampersand Symbol
Ampersands come in two primary styles: Carolingian style and Italic style.
The History of the Ampersand
The Italic style symbol is the older of the two, and its design offers a pretty good hint into the origins of the ampersand. You can see a key part of the glyph’s history in its shape: it’s a ligature of ‘E’ and ‘T’. Those two letters might seem a bit random, but ‘et’ was the Latin word for ‘and’. The ampersand was popular enough in Latin that it remained in many languages, even as they developed their own separate words for ‘and’. You can also see the use of ‘et’ in a few other key abbreviations and terms in modern English. For example, we still use ‘et cetera’ (commonly shortened to ‘etc’), and ‘et alli’ (commonly shortened to ‘et al’).
But these are leftovers from a previous time; ‘et’ used to be significantly more popular in English than it is now. It was, in fact, so common that it was considered the last glyph in the English alphabet.
The Lost 27th Letter of the Alphabet
During the same period that the ampersand was used as the end of the alphabet, it was a fairly popular construction to add ‘per se’ (another Latin phrase, meaning ‘by itself’) to the verbal spelling of words or letters that are standing alone. For example, you would spell the phrase ‘a sporcler’ with the string ‘Per se a, s, p, o, r, c, l, e, r’. With the glyph representing ‘and’ at the end of the alphabet, the end of the song becomes ‘z, and per se and’. Say this out loud and it’s easy to see how this eventually melted into ‘ampersand’.
Eventually English speakers stopped using the ampersand as the final piece of the alphabet, and different sing-song endings became popular. But the name stuck.
Using the Ampersand
Ampersands aren’t usually used in formal writing anymore, at least not as a replacement for the word ‘and’. They are still fair game, however, in company names, casual shorthand expressions like ‘pb&j’, and a lot of specific niche situations. Their curvy, dramatic shape also makes them a popular stand-alone symbol (per se!) so you’ll see them in everything from home decor to tattoo designs.
If you’re passionate about punctuation, you probably want to check out the language category of quizzes.