The curious land of the ampersand

The ampersand symbol & means and, though it often implies a closer relationship than the word. So “cheese & onion and chilli” refers to two kinds of flavour: (1) cheese and onion; (2) chilli. Similarly, screenwriting credits use & to indicate a writing team and and to indicate separate contributions.

The symbol seems to be a stylised ligature of et, the Latin for and, but in its innumerable old and modern forms this ancestry is only occasionally visible.


Historical_ampersand_evolution s

According to Adobe‘s short history of the symbol, the ampersand has been in use for almost two millennia. It was popular enough to be appended to alphabets as early as the 11th century (see 3.1.1 here).

Schoolchildren later learned it by rote as an extra letter, of sorts; in the 19th century they recited “A per se A” and “I per se I” to distinguish the words A and I from the letters A and I, and concluded their alphabets with “& per se and”, which means “(the character) ‘&’ by itself (meaning) ‘and’”. Ampersand, the name by which we know & today, is a corrupt abridgement of the phrase, and first appeared in dictionaries in 1837.

The ampersand is typically used to save time and space. Formally it is commonly used in references, business names, dictionaries, television and film titles, and when addressing a couple (“Dear Mary & Michael”), but as a direct substitute for and it is otherwise generally avoided in formal prose. &c and &cetera were once used frequently for etc., but these forms are now rare and can be considered old-fashioned. H. W. Fowler used & in early editions of the pocket and concise Oxford dictionaries and throughout A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

“inversion is archaic & poetic under such circumstances, & non-inversion normal”

Ampersand curveThe ampersand was adopted as shorthand for and in formal logic, and it gave its name to a pretty curve in mathematics (see figure). It is now frequently used in computer programming, e.g. in HTML, though its very versatility has caused problems. It is even more popular in informal contexts, such as notes, diaries, letters, text messages, instant messaging, and online social networks.

Here is an interesting example of its time-saving deployment in an old informal note:

“Some of the outer slips have got torn, &’ll need mending” (Philologist Frederick Furnivall in a note to James Murray, editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, from Caught in the Web of Words, K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather.)

[Edit: And a beautiful ampersand which Sarah France arranged with bark chippings. If browsing ampersands appeals to you, there’s a Flickr pool and a blog devoted to them. Readers might also be interested in my post on the use of the Tironian et (⁊) in Ireland.]

[Image sources: 1, 2, 3]

10 Responses to The curious land of the ampersand

  1. barry says:

    Hi Stan,

    I use the apersand all the time in all kinds of writing. It’s an idiosyncrasy which I acquired from a friend of mine. I thought it was cool at the time & it became a habit! I suppose it’s a self-conscious archaism.

    Occasionally I am told by editors (official & other wise) to replace it with “and”, but generally I just use the symbol.



  2. Stan says:

    Hi Barry, that’s an interesting account of how you acquired the habit. For my part I can’t remember why or when I started using the ampersand. Though I use it a lot in handwritten text, I mostly avoid it in formal prose and I empathize with your editor!

    Archaic it may be, but it seems to have found a new lease of life. Also, its swirls and swooshes make it ideal for calligraphy.

  3. Fran says:

    That’s a coincidence. Was just telling off my year 9s today for using it in formal essays. They called it ‘the squiggly and-thing’ so I had to re-educate them, and then remind them that, even though they now knew what it was called, they were still NOT to use it. Teaching can be so complicated.

  4. Stan says:

    Funny coincidence, Fran! I think I called the ampersand “the squiggly and-thing” or something very similar before I discovered its name.

    Because of its convenience and utility, and indeed the sheer fun of writing it, children are understandably reluctant to abstain from it without a good reason, and may not see a natural distinction between formal and informal writing – or enough of one to change their habit.

  5. […] the inner title page and in the headers throughout the text, but not on the front cover, where an ampersand replaces the word and, thus demonstrating the general interchangeability of these […]

  6. Drew says:

    This was very interesting. I’d been aware of the history of the ampersand as a written form, but I’d never realized the connotations it has over the written out “and.” It seems symbolically appropriate that the one whose letters smudged closer together would signify a closer link between A and B.

  7. Stan says:

    Drew: Yes, it does seem more appropriate. In dictation, apparently, & is read aloud as “et” to distinguish it from and, but I forget where I read this and I don’t know any amanuenses I could ask to confirm it.

    Another sanctioned formal use, and one which I did not mention above, is in “X and Y” combinations that are well established (though how established they are would vary geographically). For example, R & D for research and development; A & E for accident and emergency.

  8. […] is quite rare, except in some Irish typefaces. See here for more examples of its various forms, and here for my earlier post about ampersands. Note also the dotless Irish […]

  9. […] 36. is it appropriate to use the ampersand symbol for formal writing? [Sometimes.] […]

  10. […] The ampersand abbreviates the word et (and), from which it, in fact, evolved (more on the genesis here). Less frequent words could also be abbreviated, but this practice was tricky in that the […]

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