Where the Ampersand Symbol and Name Came From

Daven Hiskey 11
wood ampersandToday I found out where the ampersand symbol and name came from.

The symbol for “&” comes from combination of letters in the Latin for “and”, “et”.  Specifically, in Old Roman cursive, it became common to combine e’s and t’s, which produced something like this:

Over the next six centuries the ampersand gradually became more elaborate until we get the form of the symbol that is used today:

The name for the symbol, “ampersand”, didn’t commonly come into use until the 19th century, from “and per se and”, meaning more or less: “and [the symbol] by itself is and”.  Classically, when the English alphabet was spoken, “per se” commonly preceded any letter of the alphabet that could be used as a word by itself, such as “A” and “I”, as well “O”, which at one point could be used as a standalone word.  Further, the ampersand symbol used to appear at the end of the English alphabet: … X, Y, Z, &. Hence, when spoken: “… X, Y, Z, and per se and”.

By the mid-19th century, this led to the symbol itself officially appearing in English dictionaries as “ampersand”.  The one exception to this being among Scottish people who traditionally call it “epershand”, which derives from “et per se and”, using the original Latin “et” to refer to the symbol when spoken, instead of the English “and”.

This typographical ligature is often falsely credited to famed Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero’s secretary and one time slave, Marcus Tullius Tiro.  Tiro developed a stenographic shorthand system that also included a shorthand version of “et”, which preceded the first known usage of the ampersand by about 100-200 years.  However, Tiro’s symbol was not the combination of “et”, as the ampersand symbol is, and was different in form than the ampersand symbol, being closer to a modern day 7 or, more aptly, was a backwards capital gamma:

Along with the ampersand, this backwards gamma was also once commonly used to replace “and”, though it has gradually faded in popularity with the ampersand symbol becoming more prominent.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Another false etymology for “&” is that the ampersand got its name from the 18th-19th century French mathematician and physicist André-Marie Ampère.  Proponents of this theory claim Ampère used this symbol excessively in his writings and because it was supposedly new to most people reading his works (not true), they called it “Ampère’s and”.  One thing we actually get from Ampère’s name is the SI unit of electrical current: ampere, often shortened to “amp”.
  • Tiro’s shorthand system consisted of around 4,000-5000 symbols and ultimately became very popular in monasteries in Europe until around the 11th century.  If memorizing 4K-5K symbols and their meanings and becoming fluent enough in them to use them in every day writing and reading wasn’t enough, the system was actually expanded by the monks into around 13,000 scribal abbreviations.
  • In the Tironian system, the “et” backwards gamma symbol not only stood alone as “and”, but could also be used in substitute of “et” anywhere in a word.  This is similar to modern day texters who commonly use the ampersand in place of the letters “and” in a word, such as: l& for “land”.
  • Tiro was originally Cicero’s slave, but was freed in 53 BC, though continued to accompany and work for Cicero, as long as his health allowed (Tiro frequently suffered from various illnesses).  Tiro also seems to have been a relatively famous writer himself, though his works have been lost to history.  However, before these works were lost, there are numerous references to them by various writers.  The works apparently were primarily on Latin language theory, as well as some original works on Cicero himself, among other topics.  Tiro also is believed to have been the one to compile Cicero’s various works and to see them published after Cicero died.  Despite poor health at various times, Tiro lived to the ripe old age of 99 years old and is thought to have died in 4 BC.

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11 Comments »

  1. Mushyrulez June 17, 2011 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    Hrmmm, I swear I’ve seen this post around somewhere before, around the week of May 26th. Was it on your site? One about how z or x wasn’t in the alphabet, but it still had 26 symbols because of the ampersand.

  2. Daven Hiskey
    Daven June 18, 2011 at 5:15 am - Reply

    @Mushyrulez: Nope, this is new to this site and to me actually. That was a little gem I only learned when I was researching the ampersand origins. :-)

  3. alex l-m October 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    i believe the latin word “et” translates into english as “and”.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey October 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm - Reply

      @alex I-m: As it says in the article (near the beginning)

  4. CT July 16, 2013 at 8:07 am - Reply

    For “and” I commonally use ( and see) in handwriting what looks like a backward 3, or a cursive uppercase E with a vertical stroke through it – which I now assume evolved from “et” – or perhaps a more distinct way to handwrite the ampersand without it looking like an inaccurate treble clef or the word “Ex” – Is the formation of this symbol now taught in gradeschool handwritng? – it wasn’t in the 1950′s…I didn’t know it had a name until fairly recently and always referred to it as the “and symbol”

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