There’s a good chance your accounting firm’s name includes a common symbol found on most computer keyboards. That’s right, we’re talking about the ampersand. It connects names or other words in a list, and is often used as a design element while linking partners’ names in a firm’s logo. You’re fully aware of the way to pronounce it and interpret it (“and” in both cases) but do you know the origins of this fascinating symbol?
What we refer to as the ampersand today actually has deep roots that predate the name by millennia. The earliest known appearances of the symbol date back to the first century A.D., where it appeared as the word “et” in the cursive script produced by Roman scribes. As you probably recall from school, “et” is the Latin word for “and”; the two letters were joined together as is standard practice in cursive writing.
Once you know its roots, you can easily see traces of the original form in the modern ampersand as it appears in certain typefaces. If you’re dubious about my claim, check for yourself by typing an ampersand using the italic version of a font like Caslon (click on the Type Tester tab and select Italic in the dropdown menu before entering your ampersand).
Since the word is a coordinating conjunction, “et” appeared quite often in written works. As English evolved and spread into common use in England and later North America, the joined letters endured and morphed into a recognized symbol, eventually becoming a shorthand version of the original word. It was so common, in fact, that the symbol was often considered to be the 27th character of the English alphabet, still with the same meaning and pronunciation. But what about the name?
The name ampersand didn’t appear until a couple hundred years ago. Its emergence as an accepted word for the ancient symbol is a prime example of the way language changes over time. What purists initially view as indicative of laziness, lack of respect for the mother tongue and a harbinger of the imminent collapse of civilization frequently ends up fully legitimized after enough time has passed and the old guard has died off.
Young students in the first half of the 19th century would dutifully recite the alphabet as they were practicing their letters. These recitations typically finished with “…X, Y, Z and by itself, and” (the 26 letters we know and the “and” that was accepted as number 27 at the time). In keeping with the current style, they uttered the Latin phrase for “by itself” in Latin; therefore the performance closed with “…X, Y, Z and per se and.”
It seems that the younger generation, notoriously lax about proper enunciation today, were no more diligent about such matters even in the good old days. They slurred their words and ran it all together carelessly. Can you start to hear it? When the kids rushed out “and per se and,” the individual sounds got lost and what came out sounded more like “ampersand.” Thousands of iterations later, the phrase became standardized and accepted as a valid part of the lexicon in the form of a single word.
Is the transition from well-articulated Latin phrase to single English word a sure sign of decline and fall for the Empire? Perhaps, but it’s also a pretty cool story. More to the point, it’s the missing link between the “et” of classical Latin and the symbol known as “ampersand” in Doolittle & Billum. And now you know more about that cool scrolly symbol in your own firm’s name!