A strange character, the ampersand.

According to an Adobe page on the character, one of the first examples of the ampersand appeared in 45 AD. Then, as now, it’s a ligature of the letters e and t, and in Latin, et is the equivalent of the English ‘and.’ Logical and straightforward, right? But where does its name come from, and why does it look that way? One thing at a time, grasshopper.

The visual appearance of the character seems to give no indications of its origins. The ampersand above, from Adobe Caslon Pro, does not look like any et I can imagine. If pressed, I’d guess it’s a highly stylized ex. Look at the italic version of the character to the left, however. You can see it pretty clearly once you get past the crazy arms on the t.

Different typefaces can show remarkable variation in letter-forms, and the ampersand is no exception. The Adobe Caslon Pro italic ampersand appears to be capitalized while the Adobe Garamond Pro italic ampersand is distinctly lowercase, as you can see to the right. Don’t ask me why the cross bar of the e extends beyond the rest of the letter.

The origin of the name is a simpler thing. Our alphabet currently has 26 characters. In the past it had more. Some characters are not used anymore, while others are no longer considered letters. The ampersand is one of the latter. When it was still a letter, children would recite it as part of the alphabet. It was placed at the end, after z. The only issue was that it didn’t have a name at the time.

The end of the alphabet recitation was, “x, y, z, and per se and.” In Latin, per se translates roughly to “by itself.” What the children said could be understood as “x, y, z, and [the character] by itself [means] and.”

No name? No problem! They just described the character. Over time, everything they said after z was compacted into the word ampersand. The description became the name we use today.