Three staccato syllables make up this curious word, which despite its outlandish inflections describes a character that is deeply familiar to us all: the & sign. The ultimate unifying symbol that denotes the coordinating conjunction ‘and’, the ampersand is primarily recognised in modern times as the darling of commercial typesetters. These days it is ubiquitous in advertising and business, in particular to link two proper nouns in the names of companies formed of a partnership between one or more associates: Smith & Wesson, for example, or Rivoire & Carret. It also features in information technology, where it has been appropriated by certain programming languages and can be found on our computer keyboards alongside other commonly used characters.
The ampersand: Origins
To a degree, its origin remains cloaked in mystery and has sparked much debate. Its creation in the 1st century BC is sometimes attributed to Tiro, secretary to the Roman consul Cicero, but there is nothing to corroborate this assertion. In all likelihood, it can claim Merovingian ancestry as a ligature between the ‘e’ and the ‘t’ of the Latin ‘et’ (and); a ligature being two letters joined to form a single character. The ampersand flourished in France, where it is known as the ‘esperluette’, until the 19th century and was used almost routinely as an abbreviation of the French ‘et’ (and), especially by medieval scribes. Later its popularity dwindled to the point where current usage abandoned it.
It retained its prevalence in English-speaking countries, however, where its etymology is as worthy of comment as its beginnings. Consensus converges on the fact that it was the 27th letter of the alphabet, placed after ‘z’. Children would end the recitation of their ABCs with ‘and, per se, and’, the Latin ‘per se’ meaning ‘by itself’, thus avoiding the confusion of ‘…X, Y, Z and’. Over time, the words were slurred to produce ‘ampersand’. Interestingly, the French ‘esperluette’ claims a similar etymological derivation: children chanting the alphabet followed ‘z’ with ‘et per se et’, which later became ‘et per lui et’ – a simpler mnemonic stemming from ‘et qui par lui-même est un et’ (‘and which by itself is an and’). Already we can see ‘esperluette’ taking shape, the more so when we consider the Occitan version ‘es per lo et’. This literally means ‘c’est pour le et’ (‘it’s for the and’) reminding young French scholars that the ‘esperluette’ replaced ‘et’.
If this quintessential logogram has succeeded in traversing aeons to reach us with its share of enigma intact, this is due less to its practical aspect (it saves comparatively little space – ‘and’ is a diminutive word, the French ‘et’ even more so), and rather to its pleasing appearance and playful impression. These are the qualities that have earned it a place in our modern world; and, when all is said and done, whether we call it ‘ampersand’ or ‘and sign’, we surely haven’t heard the last of it yet.