A biography of the ampersand

Originally published as ‘A biography of the ampersand’, The Ampersand: Journal of the Bachelor of Arts and Science, vol. 1 (2008), pp. 1-2. This was the editorial introduction to the inaugural issue of McGill’s B.A & Sc. program journal.

In one of those weird coincidences that arise from time to time, I recently remarked in a B.A. & Sc. lecture on my area of specialty, the anthropology of writing and literacy, that the often-neglected ampersand is perhaps my favourite written sign in English. Good old Shift-7 – where would we be without you? I am thrilled to have been asked to write this short introductory piece, and I hope to share with you some of what I think makes this sign so very interesting.

The word ampersand itself has a very curious history. Prior to the twentieth century, particularly but not exclusively in Britain, & was regarded not as a punctuation mark or an auxiliary sign, but as a sort of letter of the alphabet, to be found after Z. In listing one’s letters in order, one would end the sequence ‘X, Y, Z, & per se and’ – that is, ‘&, by itself, standing for and’. Other letters that could stand for words on their own could also be named in this way (e.g. ‘A per se A’ or ‘I per se I’). The ampersand wasn’t quite a full letter – one wouldn’t use it when compiling an alphabetized list, for instance – but it had a definite place at the end of the alphabet, as recounted by generations of schoolchildren. Over time, ‘and per se and’ became ‘ampersand’, and in this blending of words its original sense was lost to all but etymologists.

Unlike the ordinary letters A through Z, & unambiguously represents a specific word in a language without indicating the sounds of that word – the term sometimes used for such signs is logogram. This usually makes the written form shorter (= for equals), but also allows it to be used regardless of the language of the reader. One can’t, however, except when being facetious, use it phonetically in words like m&atory or h&st&. Of course in French & is read as ‘et’, in German as ‘und’, and so on. It survives in part because and is such a common word, and thus in need of abbreviation, but of course many other words like the and of have no such common abbreviation, and never have.

The history of the sign & is as fascinating as its name. The earliest use of the ampersand was Roman; it emerged as a shorthand contraction of the Roman word et ‘and’ in the rapid scribal hand used in the early Empire. Of course, its reading would always have been ‘et’ in Latin – it was not yet a logogram – but as the two letters became one, its pronunciation became divorced from any specific language, even though the meaning remained constant throughout European languages. In German, this graphic origin survives in the name Etzeichen ‘et-sign’, and to this day proofreaders of English publications use the term ‘et’ in place of ‘and’ when reading & aloud, to avoid ambiguity.

Its name born out of the union of words, its shape born out of the union of letters, its meaning conveying the union of disparate ideas and concepts – the ampersand is no mere shorthand. Indeed, this publication bears the indelible mark of the merger of diversity, as will your B.A. & Sc. degree, and ultimately, your intellectual experiences.

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3 Comments

  1. I am researching whether Dr. Seuss ever used an ampersand (and if not, why) and I found this article searching Google. I do not understand the comment by Beijing Sounds but if it refers to Dr. Seuss and the ampersand I’d love to hear a clarification! Thanks!

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