addicted to ampersands

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

‘It is one of the worst things about our detestable time that this ancient… thing “ampersand” is forgotten.’

– Hilaire Belloc, 1923

As this is my very first blog I thought I’d open with a confession. I love ampersands. I can spend hours admiring their curvaceous flourishes, playful curlicues and decorative embellishments. I have typefaces consisting only of ampersands. I subscribe to blogs and websites that collect and share old, new and unusual ampersands. I have books on my shelf dedicated to this free-flowing figure. I understand that this is a minority interest – there may even be a special register that people like me should be recorded, possibly monitored and tracked. But if you want to look into the soul and personality of a typeface consider the design of its ampersand, because it’s here that the type designer (not a typographer – typography is the art of using type) gets to go wild and create something of beauty, free of restrictions, something unique. It is the most characterful character. And yes, I appreciate that this is a somewhat specialist interest.

The ampersand is a logogram, not a punctuation mark. In its modern form it is a stylised ligature of ‘e’ and ‘t’ from the Latin word ‘et’, meaning ‘and’. It first appeared in first century ad Rome, allegedly scratched as graffiti on a Pompeian wall. At that time the characters ‘e’ and ‘t’ were clearly recognisable – Latin scribes wrote in cursive script, therefore linking the two characters together. As time went by these linked characters merged and became more decorative, giving the distinctive symbol that we know today.

The ampersand through time – 1. is a representation of the original Roman ligature; 2. and 3. are from the fourth century; 4.–6. are ninth century.

It can be claimed that the ampersand owes a debt to Marcus Tullius Tiro (born 103 bc), scribe to the orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro was the author of notae Tironianae, a shorthand system of some 4000 signs and symbols (later expanded) that represent words as contractions or composites. Among these was the ‘Tironian et’, which looked like a reversed 7: ‘⁊’. Although the Tironian et and the ampersand were both used into the Middle Ages, they are two different characters – Tiro’s symbol was part of a specialist stenographic language, whereas the ampersand was formed from everyday script, being the two characters ‘e’ and ‘t’ bound by a ligature. Strangely, the Tironian et is still in use in Irish Gaelic script, where it represents the Irish word ‘agus’ (‘and’). It can be seen in car park pay and display signs, and it is thought that Ireland is the only country that uses Tiro’s shorthand.

The symbol ‘&’ predates the actual name ‘ampersand’ by roughly 1500 years. In the mid 1800s school children would recite the alphabet and conclude with the words ‘and per se and’, meaning ‘[the character] “&” by itself is “and”’. In this sense the ampersand was recognised as the 27th letter of the English alphabet. The name ‘ampersand’ came from a corruption of ‘and per se and’, which is a particularly good example of a mondegreen.

Today, ampersands are not encouraged in formal writing. They typically appear in business acronyms, such as P&O and D&G, or common acronyms – A&E and R&D – and in these instances the typical editorial style does not feature spaces. However, ampersands also feature in trademarked business names that are spelled out in full: Barnes & Noble, Smith & Wesson and Marks & Spencers being good examples; here spaces are used. The symbol of course proliferates in less formal speech such as text messages, tweets and internet shorthand (see :&, online slang for tongue tied and speechless), another example of how modern technology breathes new life into ancient symbols.

One day I would like to climb the evocatively named Ampersand Mountain in Adirondack Park, Upstate New York. It was named by W.W. Ely, who made the first recorded ascent in 1872, because of the nearby Ampersand creek that features numerous hairpin turns, similar in appearance to an ampersand symbol. I can’t imagine a better place to celebrate this loveliest of glyphs.

Type designers are to typographers as brickmakers are to bricklayers. One makes the pieces, the other builds with them.

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