Don’t you love the tilt-a-whirl shape of the & character? That curvaceous glyph looks like a number 8 that has come undone and is leaning forward on its fundament. But actually, the symbol is derived from the ligature (a character consisting of two or more joined letters such as æ) of the word et, which is Latin for “and.”
In the Roman Empire–long before Gutenberg invented the printing press–books and scrolls and other texts were copied longhand by scribes. Roman calligraphy evolved over the centuries, but it’s no wonder those writers, who were responsible for producing and reproducing most of the written material that existed in ancient society, created shorthand where they could.
But the term “ampersand” wasn’t actually used until some 1,500 years after the symbol came into common use. In the early 19th century, the English alphabet contained the 26 letters we use today, but also the word “and” like this: “X, Y, Z, and, per se, and.” “Per se” is an adverb meaning “in and of itself,” so students reciting the alphabet were actually saying, “X, Y, Z and, by itself, and.” In his book, “Glossary of the Book,” Geoffrey Glaister explains that the word ampersand is a corruption of the slurred-together end of the alphabet.
Somewhere along the way the & became an alphabetic waif, though its usage, happily, continues.
Serif ampersand print is by Michelle Tavares.