The beautiful ampersand

The beautiful ampersand

Language is the liquidity through which we communicate, in both speaking and writing. And over time it changes, it has great and continual liquidity, including regarding the relationship between the spoken and the written as well as within speaking and within writing. It changes, it perpetually changes in how it is used, and some of which usages become fixed, or at least fixed for a time. One change in writing practice that was commented on in a previous blog was the fact that there had earlier been more letters in the alphabet than presently, but these had dropped out of use. One of them is the ampersand.

In languages that use the Latin alphabet and particularly in English, use of the ampersand remains familiar and frequent. Its current life is as the contraction for a whole word, ‘and’, and it is the only letter that has this capability (although perhaps in direct translation from Latin ‘O’ has this property as well, something used to hilarious effect in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books). In earlier times when & was the twenty-sixth letter of the alphabet, it was thought of as an individual letter:  “X, Y, Z, and per se &” (where ‘per se’ means as such, or on its own). But over time and because of how this phrase was spoken in Latin, it morphed into the form we presently know, as a contraction. It is rather beautiful, as a kind of broken infinity symbol. ‘And everything else but not quite’.

Last updated:  11 March 2021


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