The 27th Character of the Alphabet
Dolce & Gabbana, Marks & Spencer, Tiffany & Co: we all know how to say it and what it means, but how exactly did the ‘&’ symbol come about?
You don’t learn about it in school, there aren’t any catchy nursery rhymes to help you remember its existence, and many people don’t even know its real name, but the ampersand or ‘&’ symbol is a widely used and instantly recognizable part of our modern lexicon.
Not initially known as an “ampersand”, this nifty little symbol predates its name by more than 1,500 years and is simply just a ligature of the cursive letters ‘E’ and ‘T’. These two letters were combined to make the Latin word ‘et’ which means ‘and’, and the character was first spotted as graffiti scrawled across a Pompeian wall around the first century A.D.
Falsely, many people used to believe that the ampersand got its name from the 18th century French physicist André-Marie Ampère as it was claimed that he used this symbol so frequently in his writings that it become known as “Ampère’s and”.
Falling right after the letter ‘Z’ in the alphabet, the character we now know and recognize as the ampersand was once the 27th component, but the simple truth is that saying “X, Y, Z and and” got a little confusing for kids in the 1800s. Instead, they started to say “and per se and” which translates roughly to “and by itself and” to make things a little easier.
Over time, these four words have become melded together to form “ampersand”, making it a mondegreen – a word which comes about from a mistaken pronunciation – with the word only appearing in dictionaries in 1837. So, next time you pass Barnes & Noble, or H&M, spare a thought for the humble ampersand, the little symbol with the big history.