The ampersand (&) had been around for a very long time — longer than most of us might expect. It went through a number of designs before becoming the immediately recognizable symbol we know today, though its meaning never changed. The symbol has quite a fascinating history, and I’m excited to tell you about it.
The symbol originated in Ancient Rome during the first century CE. It was first found in Pompeii after Mount Vesuvius erupted, and it looked like someone had merged the letters E and T. Et is a Latin word meaning “and,” and it was used in Roman cursive.
The term ampersand wasn’t coined until much later. The first known usage of the term was in the 18th century; however, the term’s origin had a linguistic tradition dating back centuries before. Single letters that also served as words, like I, sometimes had the phrase per se, meaning “by itself.” This helped determine whether someone was referring to the word or the letter. It looked like this: I per se, I. Since the ampersand represented the word “and,” it was said “and per se, and,” which eventually became ampersand.
Usage Throughout History
While the symbol was created sometime in the first century, it wasn’t very popular until the Renaissance Period. A symbol with the same meaning from Tironian Notes (⁊), a Latin shorthand system that was created around the same time, competed with the ampersand. Tironian notes were taught in monasteries during the European Medieval period, and their popularity slowly declined afterward.
The ampersand eventually replaced ⁊, and was widely popular during the Renaissance. Scribes often used it, and they associated it with the Roman Empire’s grandeur, incorporating it in both italic and Roman lettering.
Part of the Alphabet
Ampersand first came into the English language in the early 1800s. It was taught as the 27th letter of the alphabet, coming after Z. It was pronounced as “and per se” since the symbol could stand alone. It has been widely used ever since, but it was removed from the alphabet sometime during the late 19th century, lasting less than one hundred years in the alphabet.
Saying “and per se, and” quickly became tedious to say. Another reason may have to do with the modern alphabet song, which shares a tune with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It was copyrighted in 1835, and ampersand wasn’t included. It shortly declined in popularity.
Today the ampersand is mostly used in titles, such as book titles. Examples include Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger and Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Some word pairings also use ampersands, like rock & roll.
It’s not a commonly used symbol anymore, but it does still have its place in the English writing system. People still argue over when you should or shouldn’t use ampersands, but as long as it isn’t used in formal writing, I think people should try using it whenever they want.
While the ampersand isn’t used as often as it used to be, it’s still a useful symbol.
For more on the English language, click here.