The E And T In The Ampersand

As part of a school project, I’ve spent the past month or so typsetting a very visually driven book of poetry about the environment. It’s a cool gig!

While getting the work in order, the project has also gotten me to reflect on the writing process and the design of writing. This has also gotten me thinking about a little symbol we always look over: the ampersand.

The visual conjunction has been on the mind because there was a moment in my typesetting when the ampersand – the “&” – looked like a squiggle in italics versus the classic bizzaro S shape that we associate with the alphabetic symbol. The difference between the S shape lean and the italicized weird shape (It was like a lower case C was putting on a top hat.) is that both looked like letters but neither really seemed to embody the word or letters in “and.”

Why is that? My professor chimed in and mentioned that the ampersand is actually a cobbling together of the letters E and T. He then guided me through an array of ampersands that leaned toward looking like the two letters combined and others that looked like something completely different. What’s going on here? Why E and why T?

My professor had a very cursory explanation of this but type designer Johnny Gibson sums up the history quite quickly.

Roman scribes would write in cursive so as to increase the speed of their transcription, often combining letters into one form to save time while also increasing legibility, where certain characters overlap in a visually discordant manner — this was the birth of the ligature. The ampersand is simply a ligature of the letters E and T (“et” being the latin word for “and”).

There you have it. It’s a bizarre and interesting, funny and fun explanation for one of the English language’s weirder marks. It’s a visualized “and” that literally is made from the letters of the word “and.”

A challenge to any designers out there: could you make a cursive leaning non-Roman, English language “and” ampersand that uses the letters A, N, and D? I’d love to see that. I’m sure some designers and typographers have indulged this fantasy already. It has yet to catch on, clearly, and I’m very curious how the design world could evolve the symbol, to signal itself clearer or more literally or more expressively for modern times.

Photo via.

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