If you thought the English alphabet was “boring”, without any interesting characters, think again. It has one—sort of—although modern alphabets dropped it formally around the turn of the last century. The ampersand, also known as “&”, was actually considered the last letter of the alphabet, number 27. It was pronounced “per se” until relatively recently. Hearing it recited after Z would sound like “and per se and“. This eventually ran together, due to multiple mispronunciations, to become the word “ampersand”.
But where does this funny-looking character actually come from?
IT’S ALL LATIN
The meaning of the character/logogram is derived from Latin. “Et” means “and”; however, by linking the “e” and the “t” in cursive, the combined letters look like the modern character. The earliest written symbol of the “&” appears on a piece of papyrus written in 45 AD. Just under a millennia later, in 775 AD, the combination formally became part of the Roman alphabet.
The ampersand was also formally included in the earliest printing alphabets by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press in the 15th century. By the 18th century, it had entered formal education, although its use and inclusion as part of the alphabet was far from universal. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, it began to disappear from alphabets.
A German typographer named Jan Tschichold devoted an entire study on the history of the symbol, which was published in 1953 as a booklet called “The Ampersand: Its origin and development”. He recorded its development from a piece of ancient graffiti scrawled on a wall to the familiar symbol used today.
HOW AND WHERE DOES THE AMPERSAND APPEAR?
The ampersand appears in all languages derived from Latin, including German, French, and Spanish. Its use, however, depends on both cultural and personal tastes. It rarely appears in printed text anymore, although it’s frequently used in brand designs and company logos.
Clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch is one example of a firm that uses the character in its formal name and branding.
Colloquially, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is frequently referred to by the ampersand-ed shorthand “V&A”.
Where the character is still used in text, it is also memorable. Has anyone seen the shorthand for “mergers and acquisitions” written any other way than “M&A“?
In content marketing, the ampersand is chiefly used to save space (characters) or to streamline text for readability. While you may not see formal journals using the symbol, casual text is likely to use the ampersand in headings or lists.