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022: Epic Ampersand

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

The ampersand (you know, the ‘and’ symbol) might be my absolute favourite glyph. Ampersands are expressive, they’re classic, they’re abstract, and they’ve got a long history that dates back more than 2000 years. I’m so committed to my love of ampersands that I even had one as a feature at my wedding. A 3 foot tall handmade ampersand paper piñata stood between my soon-to-be husband and I during our ceremony and then it helped kick off the party after dinner when it hung from the rafters and I smashed it to smithereens spilling candy all over the dance floor.

Interestingly, ampersands are ligatures; they are the combination of the letters E & T. They vary widely in their stylings, with some it’s easy to see the two letters and others are much more ornate and abstract, especially true italics versions within many typefaces. Much like human genetics, the combined results of the two parents can produce vastly different looking offspring.

Author Simon Garfield of the masterpiece of a book called Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, describes ampersands this way: “Done well, an & is not so much a character as a creature, an animal from the deep.” In other words, it’s the unexpected, mythical, gangly kraken of the page. (“Release the ampersand!!!”) Furthermore, as author Keith Houston explains, “...the it­alic am­persand has be­come something of a play­ground for ty­po­graph­ers, and many it­alic am­persands are in­tric­ately de­signed works of art when com­pared to their con­form­ist ro­man coun­ter­parts.”

There are very few characters that allow for so much personality and character; the capital Q, capital R and perhaps the capital S as the exceptions, but the ampersand provides an opportunity to move from following a formula to improvising in the recipe; from the science of type to the art of designing glyphs.

For all of its prominence in our modern world, it’s important to note that the ampersand has a legendary origin story; a symbol with no known creator that rose from the ashes and beat the odds to become one of the most beloved symbols in existence. Cue dramatic music…

There lives an epic symbol who had the odds stacked against him. Born an orphan to the letters e and t, nothing more than a scribble on a wall, in the ancient city of Pompeii. Almost lost forever under a layer of molten ash, the unlikely ligature was uncovered and adopted as a scrappy shorthand, rising up to usurp the established Tironian et with glitz and glory. He would live on for hundreds of years, making an impression as blocks of moveable type, making the shortlist for the typewriter keyboard and then appearing on some of the highest valued real estate; taking his mighty stance beside Tiffany and a permanent place in type history, literally carved in stone. This. Is. Ampersand.

So that’s the Coles Notes version of the ampersand’s saga of rising to ubiquity, but what actually happened? How did ‘the little symbol that could’ go from a scribble on a wall to billions of uses in documents big and small, young and old?

The Ampersand’s Ancient History

As detailed in Keith Houston’s wonderful book that I reference often, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographic Marks, the ampersand spent nearly one thousand years coexisting with an opponent, the Tironian et.

So let’s start here. What is a Tironian et? Who was Tiro?

About 2000 years ago, Tiro was born a slave of Cicero’s household. As in the Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman politician, philosopher, lawyer, public speaker and all around celebrity. (As an aside, the ‘Lorem Ipsum’ filler text used by designers as a placeholder as a stand in for the real text. What is Lorem Ipsum? It’s actually a jumbled extract from Cicero’s On the Ends of Good and Evil.)

Tiro was a scribe who was very good at his job and who became Cicero’s secretary, biographer and confidant. Cicero travelled to Greece and was impressed by their use of shorthand so he tasked Tiro with creating a similar shorthand for the Latin language. One of the few symbols that stuck (of over 4000) was Tiro’s character representing the Latin word ‘et’ or ‘and’. The Tironian et looks like a stylized subscript number 7. As the years went on, the Tironian et was popular in the Middle Ages, in manuscripts with blackletter script. Interestingly, part of the reason that the Tironian shorthand system didn’t stand the test of time was the distrust of witchcraft and magic that was connected with the secrecy of shorthand writing. The Tironian et continued to fall out of popularity and it virtually disappeared, except in one modern place... So where can this funny little elbow of a symbol be found in the world? Just a quick hop across the pond to Ireland and you can go on a symbol safari and see the Tironian et in the wild. The symbol’s still used in the Irish Gaelic language and can be seen on street signs all over the country.

And if you’re wondering what happened to the talented, enslaved Tiro, he continued with a successful career after Cicero’s death, made lots of money, was a freed slave, dubbed himself Marcus Tullius Tiro, bought a farm and died peacefully at 100 years old.

And speaking of 100, the ampersand wouldn’t be born for another 100 years after the Tironian et… and it was barely born, at that. The ampersand was practically an orphan - nothing much more than graffiti on a wall, scribbled by an anonymous artist in Pompeii around 79 AD.

The Ampersand’s Modern History

For many years, the ampersand was included in the alphabet. It was the 27th character and school children were taught the symbol as part of learning the alphabet.

According to an article in Medium, ampersand was the only letter of the English alphabet that did not represent a sound. This is actually pretty profound because that’s what an alphabet is. Letters are symbols that represent spoken sound. At one time the alphabet was a truly a novel invention that enabled individuals to communicate spoken sound in a whole new way that would stand the test of time. A communication method that could outlive a person’s physical existence on Earth. For thousands and thousands of years before the first alphabet was developed, complex communication (more than simple pictograms or ideograms carved into a wall) was delivered by voice from one person to another. The alphabet meant that speech could be spoken, coded using symbols of the alphabet, and then decoded back into spoken sound at a later time, by someone completely different in a different place in a different time. So with this understanding, it’s quite meaningful that the ampersand did not represent a spoken sound.

Let’s get back to the way in which the ampersand was incorporated into the alphabet. After XYZ came, ‘et, per se and’. It would have been confusing for kids to say ‘XYZ and…’ And what? So they were taught to say et (Latin for and) and then, per se and, meaning ‘and’ by itself, clarifying that it was referring to ‘and’ as in the symbol, the 27th character of the alphabet and not a link between the alphabet and something that comes after it. ‘Et, per se and’ morphed into ‘and, per se and’, which then morphed into the word ‘ampersand’. The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that its first use of the word was in 1795 and by the year 1837 (less than 200 years ago) the term ampersand was immortalized in the English dictionary. So unlike the mysterious origins of fellow glyphs (such as the octothorpe), the ampersand’s nomenclature is fairly straightforward. It’s a conflation of ‘et, per se and’. And according to Grammar Girl, the word ampersand is referred to as a ‘mondegreen’, which is a word that’s name comes from a mishearing or a misunderstanding. When you sing the wrong lyrics to a song because they sound like something else, that’s a mondegreen. And a mondegreen is a mondegreen itself coined by writer Sylvia Wright, who misheard a line from a 17th-century Scottish ballad. She heard “Lady Mondegreen” instead of “And laid him on the green”. And decided to name this phenomenon after said fictional Lady Mondegreen.

Looping back to the ABC’s, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how ‘ampersand’ was integrated into the ABC song as we know it today… XYZ, ampersand? Said simply, it wasn’t. The ABC song as we know it was adapted from a song called The Schoolmaster, copyrighted in 1834. Before this kids would often learn the alphabet using a rhyme called Apple Pie ABC and parts of this rhyme appeared in religious texts as early as 1671, appearing printed in its entirety in 1742. It goes something like this:

“Apple Pie ABC” (original version):

A was an Apple pie;

B bit it;

C cut it;

D dealt it;

E eat it;

F fought for it;

G got it;

H had it;

J joined it;

K kept it;

L longed for it;

M mourned for it;

N nodded at it;

O opened it;

P peeped in it;

Q quartered it;

R ran for it;

S stole it;

T took it;

V viewed it;

W wanted it;

X, Y, Z, and ampersand,

All wished for a piece in hand

And because the ampersand came at the end of the alphabet, the 27th character, by the 1880’s ampersand became slang for ‘posterior’ or ‘rear end’. (I like big ampersands and I cannot lie?)

You may have also noticed that the letters I and U were missing, which were added later with “I inspected it” and “U upset it”.

Additionally, it’s important to clarify that not every book about the English language included the ampersand as the 27th character. Many did, but others didn’t. This non-standardized inclusion helps explain why the ampersand just kind of disappeared from the alphabet without much of a trace in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.

Ampersand’s Use

While the use of the ampersand symbol is generally frowned upon in formal or even semi formal writing in the English language, It has its place in modern writing. Ampersands are used to link items in lists and are commonly used in the academic world to cite references. It’s also often used in the world of blogging and social media where there are fewer rules to follow, buuuuuuut they’re not recognized in hashtags or in URLs. They’re also commonly used decoratively alongside display type in headlines in large and small publications alike.

If you’re like me you’ve probably used the word the abbreviation for etcetera (etc.) in writing both casually and formally. It’s a commonly used and commonly accepted way to specify that there’s more to the story. But did you know that the short form for etcetera (etc.) can and is also denoted using the ampersand? That’s right. ‘et’ meaning ‘and’ and ‘c’ for cetera meaning ‘the rest’. And it can also be denoted as ampersand with a c on the end. A short form of a short form. Inception for symbols...

In researching this podcast episode and learning about how ampersands are used today, I learned something absolutely fascinating. I learned that when you see the credits roll at the end of a film, writers who collaborated more closely together on the project will have an ampersand between their names versus those with the word ‘and’. For example two writers within an ampersand between their names means that they actively collaborated and wrote the piece together, whereas two writers with an ‘and’ between their names implies that one writer was involved in rewriting parts of the other writer’s work. Who knew?

Restore the Ampersand?

In a publicity stunt for their 100th birthday celebration, A&W Restaurants created a video and started a petition to ‘restore the ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet”.

From the petition’s page:

“...Ever tried to use an ampersand in a hashtag? Or a URL? It doesn’t work. We think that’s pretty lame. After all, the ampersand was actually part of the alphabet once upon a time.

So as we celebrate our 100th birthday in 2019, we at A&W Restaurants are only asking for one thing: bring back the ampersand. It’s utilized by thousands of brands, organizations, bands, films and publications. It’s a useful, universal symbol of bringing things together...

...But then it mysteriously and inexplicably disappeared from the alphabet.

In this digital world, its exclusion has made all of our lives a little harder. Think about it… is clunky and ugly. The Twitter handle @aandwrestaurants looks ridiculous. #A&W is read by computers as just one lonely #A. Sometimes using a “&” just makes a lot more sense.”

Although clever, I’m not sure how much sense it would make to actually restore ampersand to the alphabet. The petition is appealing to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but the symbol’s got the odds stacked against it because it doesn’t even symbolize a sound, after all. The petition is aiming for 10,000 signatures and two years in they’re only 78% of the way there. Yikes, that can’t be a good thing.

Coming Together

Although A&W’s campaign is cute, I’ll think it’s little more than that: cute. But here’s some truly great change that happened because of the ampersand.

There’s this really cool group of type designers and type lovers with an even cooler name: the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA). From time to time they will create amazing new type for a good cause and they call it FontAid. In 2010, SOTA released ‘Coming Together’ to support Doctors Without Borders and the Haiti Earthquake disaster. The symbolism in the ampersands is the unity and solidarity in helping one another through disaster relief. Here are some key facts about the typeface:

  • The font file contains 483 different ampersands

  • Nearly 400 designers from 37 countries contributed

  • OpenType font format

  • Cost $20 US

After all, coming together is what the ampersand was built to do.

Now you have a better understanding of what an underdog the ampersand was and at least part of the story as to how it rose to fame today. What was once a scribble of graffiti almost lost forever under a layer of ash, ‘the symbol that lived’ has entrenched itself into modern popular culture in so many ways. I know the ampersand’s roots are in Pompeii, but I think that it’s in some way connected to Canada. Speaking as a Canadian, any symbol that represents ‘eh’ has to be ours. But the ampersand is more than simply an abbreviation; it links type back to its origins of writing with a quill, reminding us of this history with every “Shift + 7” of our keyboards.

Music by Freesound

Epic Strings AlexProst

Epic Chorus Song frankum

Happy Sounds Mativve

Record Scratches filmsndfx

Canada geese sanus_excipio

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash



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