One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
What is the origin of the ampersand (&)?
The origin of the ampersand can be traced back to the Latin word et, meaning ‘and’. The E and the T that make up this word were occasionally written together to form a ligature (a character consisting of two or more joined letters). Writing the word this way saved the writer time, with one letter flowing seamlessly into the next – a form of cursive or joined up writing.
It’s impossible to say exactly when this symbol was first written down, but an early example has been found as graffiti on a wall in Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. It can be very difficult to trace the development of symbols over time, but with the ampersand the work has already been done for us, by one Jan Tschichold, a typographer born in Leipzip in 1902. Tschichold devoted an entire study to the development of the ampersand in his 1953 booklet The ampersand: its origin and development, where he collected hundreds of examples of the symbol throughout history, recording its development from the piece of ancient graffiti to the familiar ‘&’ used today. Within this collection are examples from the eighth century which are already recognizable as the modern ampersand.
For such an ancient symbol, the name ‘ampersand’ is surprisingly modern. First seen in the late 18th century, it comes from an alteration of and per se and (literally ‘and (i.e. &) by itself makes the word and’), which was once chanted by schoolchildren as an aid to learning the sign.
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