For Word Nerds: The Story of ‘&’

It just seemed too good, too pat, too cute to be true. It might be pure bunkum. But as near as I can tell after doing a little research, this is actually correct.

I was looking for something on dictionary.com the other day and they linked to an article on the old ampersand, you know, the “&” character that means “and.” Saving you two keystrokes that could be the difference between – well, between two things that don’t require much time. We’re talking typing here.

Maybe this is common knowledge, but it was news to me and way more interesting that you might think.

The ampersand character is actually more than 1,500 years older than the word “ampersand.” The character was developed by Latin scribes, linking the characters for “e” and “t” in the Roman alphabet. Those two letter form the Latin word “et,” which mean “and.” I suppose when you’re chiseling words into marble saving a character here and there is important.

Latin was the language of civilized people, really the language of civilization itself, for about 2,000 years, and the ampersand came along for the ride. Nothing surprising there. Pretty much the whole English language is stuff we got from somewhere else.

This is where it gets really interesting. “&” was actually part of the English alphabet for hundreds of years. As recently as the early 1800s, kids reciting their ABCs would finish with “w, x, y, z, and and.”

Except “and and” was awkward, to say the least. So instead, they used another Latin phrase, “per se,” which means “by itself,” or “as itself.” So they would say, “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.”

And that’s where the word comes from. “And per se and” became “ampersand.” Cool. Very cool.

That’s called a mondegreen. If you think the history of ampersand is interesting, look up mondegreen, you’ll love it. But do it before the girl with colitis goes by.