Robert L. Peters

19 May 2008

Ampersand, et al…


From H&FJ

“Though it feels like a modern appendix to our ancient alphabet, the ampersand is considerably older than many of the letters that we use today. By the time the letter W entered the Latin alphabet in the seventh century, ampersands had enjoyed six hundred years of continuous use; one appears in Pompeiian graffiti, establishing the symbol at least as far back as A.D. 79. One tidy historical account credits Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, with the invention of the ampersand, and while this is likely a simplified retelling, it’s certainly true that Tiro was a tireless user of scribal abbreviations. One surviving construction of the ampersand bears his name, and keen typophiles can occasionally find the ‘Tironian and’ out in the world today.”

“As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it: (see a tour of some ampersands and the thinking behind them, along with an explanation of the storied history of the word “ampersand” itself on the Hoefler & Frere-Jones site here).

“As for the word “ampersand,” folk etymologies abound. The likeliest account, offered by the OED, is explained by early alphabet primers in which the symbol was listed after X, Y, Z as “&: per se, and.” Meaning “&: in itself, ‘and’”, and inevitably pronounced as “and per se and,” it’s a quick corruption to “ampersand,” and the rest is history. Though I do like one competing explanation offered by a retired signpainter I once met, who insisted that the symbol got its name from its inventor, and was henceforth known to the trade as Amper’s And. This Mr. Amper has never surfaced, nor have any of his contemporaries who lent their names to competing models; I would have liked to see Quick’s And, on which this tale is surely built.”—JH


back to News+

© 2002-