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The story of &

In recent weeks, the font nerds over at Hoefler & Frere-Jones have taken readers on an exciting adventure in kerning and answered their burning questions about the origins of the pilcrow.

This week, they recount the history of the ampersand, which stretches at least as far back as Pompeiian grafitti in 79 A.D.:

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of et, the Latin word for and. Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it.

As for the word ampersand, folk etymologies abound. The likeliest account, offered by the OED, is explained by early alphabet primers in which the symbol was listed after X, Y, Z as &: per se, and. Meaning &: in itself, ˜and’, and inevitably pronounced as and per se and, it’s a quick corruption to ampersand, and the rest is history. Though I do like one competing explanation offered by a retired signpainter I once met, who insisted that the symbol got its name from its inventor, and was henceforth known to the trade as Amper’s And. This Mr. Amper has never surfaced, nor have any of his contemporaries who lent their names to competing models; I would have liked to see Quick’s And, on which this tale is surely built.