Over the door of the Warwick Hotel in Salthill, Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, sits a very old and unusual typographical mark. Between Beár (bar) and Bialann (restaurant) there is a Tironian et (⁊), Latin for and.
The Tironian et is a remnant of Tiro’s shorthand system, which was popular for centuries but is now almost entirely discontinued. The mark lives on in just a couple of writing systems, one of which is Irish.
Even Irish people who respond to the phrase Tironian et with blank looks are familiar with it from bilingual street signs like this one:
Notice that in Irish the letter i has no tittle, or diacritic dot – it’s just ı – but i is often used for convenience.
I’ve used the Tironian et in my own handwriting, but not habitually. It appears liberally in some Irish books, especially older ones, for example Osborn Bergin’s Stories from Keating’s History of Ireland. The image below is from my paperback copy, but the book is available at the Internet Archive if you want to browse it yourself.
The examples above give the impression that the Tironian et is like a ‘7’ with a low tail and no crossbar, and it often is, but over the course of millennia it has taken quite a range of visual forms. Jan Tschichold’s Formenwandlungen der Et-Zeichen has a page of historical varieties:
Keith Houston’s wonderful Shady Characters delves into the history of the Tironian et (and its cousin the ampersand). He writes that the mark “prospered in the blackletter manuscripts of the Middle Ages” while the rest of Tiro’s system “fared poorly”:
Medieval shorthand in general found itself subject to a curious linguistic witch hunt. The secrecy and cypherlike nature of both traditional runic writing and shorthand did not coexist well with the distrust of witchcraft and magic prevalent in those times, and Tiro’s system was further stigmatized as a result. Briefly revived in the twelfth century, and later inspiring a series of copycat notations in English and other languages, the notae Tironianae were nevertheless a spent force.
This final image shows the Tironian et used in the abbreviation ⁊c., that is, etc., short for et cetera, in a German document from 1768:
So if you’re ever in Ireland, look closely at any Irish text you see in public places, especially official signs. You might spot an unassuming typographical relic that has been preserved here since antiquity.