About the ampersand

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What exactly is an ampersand?

It’s a ligature, or joining, of the letters “e” and “t,” which in Latin is “et,” or “and.” That’s why there are so many different visual styles of the character. As long as you can see (or as long as the type designer thinks he sees) an “e” and a “t,” you’ve got an ampersand. Here are some examples:

Did you know our alphabet used to have more than 26 characters?

The symbol “&” was actually part of the English alphabet in the early 1800s.  It was the 27th letter, or more accurately, glyph, ligature or symbol.

Why is it called “ampersand”?

School children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with &. It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z, and.” Rather, the students said, “and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and, by itself, ‘and’.”

Over time, “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand. When a word comes about from a mistaken pronunciation, it’s called a mondegreen.

Is the plus sign an ampersand?

“Plus” is a Latin word for “more.” So maybe the plus sign is a figure of sole origin, or it may have been derived from the ampersand, which in a way also means “more.” Here is my own sequence of evolution that supports the theory it is derived from the ampersand:

What does &c. mean?

“&” is for “et,” and “c.” is for “cetera.”
“Et” is Latin for “and.”
“Cetera” is Latin for “the others.”
Et cetera.

What does U&lc mean?

UPPER & lower case, as in capital and non-capital letters. The proper terms, though not heard much anymore, are “majuscule” and “minuscule.”

The terms “upper case” and “lower case” originated in the early days of hand-set type where each character was cast on a separate piece of metal and stored in shallow drawers known as cases. Frequently there were two cases (drawers) for each font, one placed on top of the other while compositing type. The upper case contained the majuscules. The lower case contained the minuscules.

This illustration has the cases reversed—lowercase is on top—to clearly show the various sizes of boxes individual compartments needed to accommodate the quantity of each lowercase letter used for the average composition. (The uppercase compartments are all the same size.) There are more “e”s used in the English language than any other letter, hence “e” is stored in the largest box.

Our friend the ampersand is stored in the upper case (bottom in this illustration), near the lower right corner: bottom row & second box in.

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15 thoughts on “About the ampersand

  1. Thanks for all this! I used to set metal type at Phila. College of Art (1960’s) now U of Arts and treasured the result. Would love to do that again. Do lots of graphics still but am really a sculptor of “stuff” from “stuff.” And love the expression “nifty!”

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  3. Chaz, thank you so much for stopping by our facebook page, Trixy King Rex. We all thought it was a total blast that the creator of a holiday commented. Our joy was expressed in comments & the subsequent post. I & my furiends greatly appreciate it.

  4. thanks for bringing a smile to my day, today 9/8….’&’- day : O )…

    you see, my dad was a printer for the new york times for many years (1960’s-early 70’s)
    up until computerization replaced ‘old fashioned’ hand set print around 1974…

    i remember 2 of his favorite things about the print world was telling me about
    the word and character ‘ampersand’ and the word ‘typo’…lots of silly giggles… : O )

    1. Robin, I’m going through comments today. I really appreciate yours. For some reason I have always found printers to be a warm, fun-loving sort, and I bet your dad brought home some wonderful stories (and aromas of the pressroom). I’ve been both a typographer and hand lettering artist. Recently they were both brought back into my realm of creativity and passion when my best friend asked me to restore & re-create titles for his silent films. Here’s a little about that: http://www.silentcinemasociety.org/titles/ Are you in the creative field as well? Any ink under the fingernails? Please stay in touch, Robin: chaz@desimonedesign.com

  5. This is so cool to know! Thank you! I stumbled across this very informative page while searching Pinterest for examples of handwritten ampersand types. After verifying the info I learned on your page, I’ve been sharing feverishly with everyone I know! LOL. Is that dorky or what??

    1. Michelle, I’m going through my visitors’ comments today and there are a few that are sparkling. Yours is one. Feel free to ask me anything about ampersands (or typography & lettering in general) – chaz@desimonedesign.com. THANK YOU for sharing with everyone! I hope to reach lots more people who I’m sure are “amperfans.” And is that dorky? I hope so – I was the class dork, nerd, square, weirdo, you name it. And proud of it.

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