It’s such a common symbol that you may never have thought about the origins of the ampersand, or “&”. You see it in logos everywhere, for companies from Dolce & Gabbana to Ben & Jerry’s, and you’ve certainly used it when jotting your own notes.
But where did it come from?
The symbol we recognize today is actually a ligature, or combination of two symbols into one. The term comes from the latin “ligat-” or “bound”, since it’s two letters tied together. These are fairly common, but many of them, like the ones shown below, still read as two different letters to our eyes.
The ampersand, by contrast, has become such a ubiquitous stand-in for the word “and” that it is a standalone character. Indeed, it was once often included as the final letter of the alphabet.
The alphabet chart shown here is from an 1863 textbook and displays the ampersand as the final character. At that time, when the alphabet was recited, this last character would be listed in Latin as “et per se, ‘and’”. Or translated: “and by itself, ‘and’”.
Eventually, “et per se and” or “and per se and” became the name “ampersand” as we know it today.
But where did it get its shape, and what was all that about ligatures earlier?
As mentioned before, the Latin word for “and” is “et”. That’s where the ampersand’s shape comes from. It’s a merged form of an “e” and a “t”. It’s believed this character as a form of shorthand dates back as far as 63BC.
Once you realize its roots, the “e” and “t” become easy to find in various evolutions of the character.
Ampersands are so beloved by typographers that the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA) developed an ampersand-only typeface in 2010. The “Coming Together” font was sold to raise money for earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, with design contributions from nearly 400 different typographers in almost 40 countries.
Like any other type element, an ampersand can give a voice to your logo or design. Is it a playful, looping character in a heavy weight? An elegant script version with a lot of flourish? Or a clean, no-nonsense symbol?
Whichever one you choose, we hope this journey into typography trivia has been both entertaining and insightful. For more interesting design tidbits, check out our other blog entries. And if you need layout or design assistance with a print project, please give us a call today.
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