One of the most sensual symbols in typography, the ampersand has long been a staple in manuscripts, graphic art pieces, logos, and labels throughout history. And because unlike most letterforms that have rigid guidelines, the ampersand’s openness to more creative interpretations have made it a popular typography element for today’s youth.
But despite its prevalence, few may know about this sexy character’s origin.
It was the symbol for the Latin word for “and,” which is “et,” that shaped the ampersand into what it looks like today. Quite literally the symbol for unity, the ampersand is a ligature of the letters “e” and “t.” Looking at modern versions of the ampersand, both letters are still quite visible in the symbol “&.”
The ampersand can be traced to various points in history. Some of the more noteworthy ones include:
- In 63 B.C., Cicero’s secretary, Marcus Tiro, included the phrase “and, per se and” at the end of his alphabet recitals, which was accompanied by a shorthand character that represented the phrase.
- In 79 A.D., the ampersand was found in papyrus scrolls and messages.
- In 775 A.D., the ET ligature became part of the Roman alphabet, then commonly depicted as a singular character.
- In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg included the ampersand in his first printing press.
- After it was officially included in dictionaries in 1837, the Concise Manual of Typography stated that the word “and” can be represented by the ampersand.
From Tironian Notes to the Concise Manual of Typography, the ampersand has evolved from representations of the letters “e” and “t” into the more stylized symbol that is commonly used today. It’s no longer only used for shorthand notes, but also for graphic arts and company names.
Ampersand in the 19th Century
In the 19th century, the ampersand was taught in British schools as the 27th letter of the alphabet. When schoolchildren recited the alphabet, they ended it with “…W, X, Y, Z, and per se and.” History has it that that’s how it evolved into the word “ampersand.”
That’s also why the ampersand looks like it belongs when placed in the middle of other letters, as you can see with brands like AT&T, H&M, and A&W. It’s even taken on the status as the universal symbol for unity (much like a wedding ring), to mark partnerships as it has with Johnson & Johnson, Marks & Spencer, and Barnes & Noble.
From blogs, art pieces, shirts and posters – artists have had an ongoing love affair with the ampersand, owed to its distinct symbolism that catches the viewer’s eyes.
The three-dimensional letters below that the artist used to make a statement seem to imply that the ampersand is just as important as the above and below it.
For running texts like editorials, reports, and essays, the ampersand isn’t used, sticking instead to the traditional “and.” The symbol is best used in titles or headings where it can make the most impact. For writers, this is one of the basic unwritten rules to follow. In very rare occasions, an ampersand can be used in running texts only to clarify a list that is being described. (For example, fabrics that are soft, wide, colored black & white, and light in weight.)
On the other side of the spectrum, the ampersand has also been used in programming languages. These include:
- Visual Basic – to combine variables and literal text
- C++ – to denote an address in memory
- Perl – to name a user-defined subroutine
- Excel – to combine several values into a single value
- HTML – for extended characters
Despite its many uses throughout history – from papyrus scrolls, to programming – even its most ardent fans find it hard to succinctly define the ampersand. And that’s exactly why it continues to enjoy the cult following that it has.
There are a lot of reasons why it could’ve become obsolete, yet it continues to thrive in today’s tech-savvy world.
What’s the most interesting use for ampersand that you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments section.