Celebrating The Ampersand On National Ampersand Day

Header image by Christopher Shultz

How often do you think about the ampersand? If the answer is “not very often,” then today is a chance to give this symbol its due. That’s because today is National Ampersand Day. 

That’s right, this little ligature has its own day of recognition. It was created in 2015 by Chaz DeSimone, a typographer, graphic designer and founder of AmperArt.com, a website devoted to artwork incorporating the ampersand in fun and creative ways. The holiday occurs on September 8th “because several of the characters can be cleverly disguised as ampersands, when the right fonts are used,” according to AmperArt’s info page about the day. 

But why the ampersand? Well, first of all, why not? “...this curly, quirky little character is ubiquitously useful,” DeSimone writes. “It’s also quite aesthetic...” Second of all, the symbol actually has a pretty fascinating history. Its origins date back to Pompeii circa the first century CE, according to Kelly Jensen’s “nerdy” history of the ampersand at Book Riot — a date that is at best a guess. Merriam-Webster notes:

The symbol, according to Keith Houston's charming and authoritative Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, appears in the historical record for the first time in some anonymous graffiti in the most famously ruined of ancient ruined cities: Pompeii. The exact date of its appearance is unknown, but the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried the city in volcanic ash, does, as Houston notes, ‘impose a rather hard upper limit on the possible range of dates.’

As mentioned previously, the ampersand is a ligature, or a combination of two or more letters, in this case “e” and “t.” This is because the Latin word for “and” is “et.” While the modern ampersand may not immediately resemble a conjoining of these two letters, Jensen explains that they’re actually “visible in every iteration of the symbol” if you know how to look at the ampersand. “Think of the e and the t as set atop one another, rather than side-by-side,” they advise. Looking at the ampersand in this way should allow the original letters to emerge every single time.

While the symbol itself has ancient origins, the word “ampersand” is a comparatively modern concoction, first appearing sometime around 1835, according to Daniel Costa and Encyclopedia Brittanica. However, to understand how “ampersand” came to be, we need to look back to the late Middle Ages. Then, certain single letters that also functioned as words were referred to with the phrase “per se.” Take “A” for instance, which is both the first letter of the alphabet and also a word on its own, as in, “A horse walks into a bar...” As such, when referring to the letter, not the word, “A,” one would say, “A per se, A,” which roughly translated from Latin means “A by itself is A.” The symbol & enters the narrative here because, as Costa notes, it “was taught as the 27th letter of the alphabet, after z, to 19th-century British students, who recited it as ‘and per se and,’” or “& by itself is and.” Over time, the phrase “and per se and” gave way to “corruptions,” or slurring of the individual words into each other. The “nd” in the first “and” eventually morphed into an “m” sound, “per” and “se” ran into each other and flowed right into the final “and,” creating a new word: ampersand, which officially entered the English dictionary in 1837. 

& lost its spot as the 27th letter of the alphabet sometime around the 1880s or 1890s, but the word ampersand, and the symbol used as a substitute for “and,” stuck around. Now of course they’re ubiquitous in the English language, so much so that, as noted earlier, most people probably don’t even think about it. But the ampersand is everywhere, from the world of business as seen in companies like Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Tiffany & Co., Procter & Gamble, Dolce & Gabbana, H&M, and AT&T, as well as the candy M&Ms. It’s also prevalent in the world of music, be it musical duos like Hall & Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, Brooks & Dunn, or Eric B. & Rakim, or genres like R&B (rhythm and blues) and rock & roll. 

The ampersand is also prevalent in film credits. The Writers Guild of America explains, “The word ‘and’ designates that the writers wrote separately and an ampersand (“&”) denotes a writing team.” Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen explains further:

The & in film credits is specific in use in that it suggests a closer partnership between people than a simple ‘and.’ If two writers worked closely on a script, for example, they’d be credited with an &. If their relationship was more in line with what an author and editor do, they’d be denoted with an ‘and.’

Given this rich and fascinating history, as well as its prevalence in modern society, perhaps you’ll give the ampersand a bit more consideration now, especially on its big day.

Get Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks at Bookshop or Amazon

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