These days everybody knows about the ampersand. It’s one of typography’s most unique and interesting characters.
Its rise to hipster fame has catapulted the ampersand from the sketchbooks of type designers onto just about every printable surface you can imagine, the variations of which seem endless. From traditional representations all the way to hyper-stylised forms that bear little resemblance to the original mark.
The varied nature of its form allows type designers a little creative freedom, and is often seen as an opportunity to inject some extra personality into a typeface. Officially classified as punctuation by todays unicode, it was in fact, once the 27th letter in the English alphabet existing as the graphical representation of the word ‘and’.
Designers in all fields both love and hate the ampersand in equal measure, but very few know much about its history, or intended use, which is actually rather interesting.
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Roman scribes would write in cursive so as to increase the speed of their transcription, often combining letters into one form to save time while also increasing legibility, where certain characters overlap in a visually discordant manner — this was the birth of the ligature. The ampersand is simply a ligature of the letters E and T (et being the latin word for and).
As the Romans expanded their empire across the globe, many languages just absorbed this ligature into their own alphabet.
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By the early seventeen hundreds, schools throughout England had started to use the phrase per se (essentially meaning by itself) when spelling out words. This was specifically useful when encountering words that consist of only a single letter (A, I and originally O).
As an example, in order to spell the phrase “I invite you”, children would say:
“Per se i, i, n, v…”
indicting that the initial i stood by itself, rather than a part of the proceeding word.
At the same time, and (the et-ligature &, now pronounced and) had become common place and was all but inducted into the English language as the 27th letter of the alphabet. It became so widely used that children in school, when reciting the alphabet, would include & after the letter Z. The result of this was that phonetically you would hear “X, Y, Z and per se and” indicating that the & stood by itself at the end of the alphabet. The phrase “and per se and” was inevitably slurred into one single term and by 1837, the term ampersand was well and truly immortalised in the English dictionary.
Interesting fact — The ampersand was the only letter in the English alphabet that did not represent a speech sound.
Link to the rest at Medium