The Ampersand Symbol: Origin, Evolution and Its Place in the Modern World

by Mark Stephens
The Ampersand Symbol - Origin, History, Evolution and Usage

The ampersand symbol; it’s everywhere! From logos to brand names, the mysterious ampersand sign is an instantly recognizable symbol. But have you ever thought about what the symbol means or why it looks the way it does? And, just before you get to a conclusion, there are many ampersand variations too!

From the eye of Horus to the great Zimbabwe bird to Kokopelli, ancient symbols have found life in the modern world. While it is true that ancient symbols have lost their original meanings, they have stood the test of time and found their way into popular culture.

An article published on discovermagazine.com and aptly titled “The Modern Lives of Ancient Symbols,” mentions the following: “Millennia from now we’ll be gone, but symbols from 21st century culture may endure. Perhaps a future civilization will add golden arches to their flag after discovering ruins from McDonald’s… And a religious cult will worship a green goddess, who bears striking resemblance to the maiden on Starbucks’ logo.”

While the ampersand is an old symbol, it has not lost its original meaning. “The term ampersand is a corruption of “and” per se and, which literally means & (the character) by itself (is the word) and. The symbol & is derived from the ligature of ET or et, which is the Latin word for and.”Geoffrey Glaister, Glossary of the Book   

Ampersand Symbol: History and Evolution

The Ampersand Symbol: Origin, Evolution and Its Place in the Modern World

The history of the ampersand can be traced back to the 1st century AD. The Romans used the logogram ‘&’ to symbolize and: et. Letters “E” and “T,” in the Old Roman cursive, were written to form a ligature.

What is a ligature? In a ligature, two or more letters are joined to form a single glyph. Writing a word in the ligature form helped writers save time because one letter followed the other seamlessly.

Many attempts have been made by linguists and historians to trace down the origins of the ampersand. However, they could never come up with a satisfactory explanation.  Just like many symbols with a vague past, the ampersand finds itself in popular culture.

While its origins are still a mystery, an early graffiti of the famous symbol was found on a wall in Pompeii: a city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. However, the wall with ampersand graffiti was perfectly preserved due to the eruption.

While it can be a herculean task to trace the origins of an ancient symbol, a substantial amount of work has been done with the ampersand. Jan Tschichold, a typographer from Leipzig, conducted thorough research on the development of the ampersand.

In his book, A Brief History of the Ampersand, Jan writes extensively about the origins of the ampersand.  Jan writes: “A special group of et-abbreviations is neither derived from the original Roman letter E and T, nor from their miniscule forms—e and t—but from a scribal abbreviation used in the Tironian notation system.”

The word ampersand, however, is a modern development. In the 1800s, schoolchildren in Britain would recite the alphabet song and conclude it with the line, “X, Y, Z, and per say &.” Over time, children would slur the words “and per say &” which gave birth to “ampersand.”  The process through which a new word is born after repeated mispronunciation of something else is referred to as mondegreen.

In contemporary typography, the ampersand symbol is included when designing new fonts. The symbol can also be found in every Latin script in use today. The ampersand has numerous variations; however, letters “e” and “t” remain the basis of this ancient symbol.

The Tironian ET

The Ampersand Symbol: Origin, Evolution and Its Place in the Modern World

Well, this can make things a bit confusing, and why? The ampersand was not the only symbol that represented the idea of “and.” According to various studies, Tironian was a form of shorthand taught in monasteries. The “et” ligature in Tironian resembled the modern number “7.” The Tironian ligature is widely in use over ampersand in Scotland and Ireland. Here is how it looks:

Variations

There are many different variations of the ampersand; however, the two main styles of ampersands are Roman and Italic.

Roman

The Roman version of the ampersand is probably the most recognized one. From Adobe Caslon Pro to Proxima Nova to Menlo, the Roman ampersand is widely favored by both the educational and professional worlds. 

Italic

The contemporary Italic ampersand is a type of “et” ligature. This category of cursive was developed during the Renaissance period. The Italic counterpart is more fanciful and romantic. 

Eclectic

The ampersand is an interesting shape for designers to play around with. Designers use the ampersand in a variety of ways to create some great-looking designs.

Lowercase

Lowercase ampersands are technically Italic, but appear to be built of lower case “e.”

The Ampersand Usage Rules

Ask 20 professionals if they are aware of the rules for ampersand usage, and most likely, 19 of them would give you a surprising look! Like other punctuation marks or letters, the ampersand has certain rules.

Improper formatting and incorrect use of the ampersand may make your writing look dull and clunky, even to readers who are not aware of these rules!

The following rules will enable you to use ampersand flawlessly in your writing:

Rule 1: Titles or headings set the tone for a piece of writing. While it may be tempting to use an ampersand to your title or headings, it is best to avoid it. Ampersand should not be used as a substitute to “and” in headings, except for the second rule mentioned below.

Rule 2: Limiting the use of ampersands to the following few situations will make your writing look more professional:

  • Use space between proper nouns, e.g., Procter & Gamble.
  • Common shorthand expressions such as “R&B” or “country & western.”
  •  In film credits for screenplays, songwriting, stories, etc., the ampersand indicates a closer collaboration.
  • In names that are abbreviated, such as “AT&T,” ampersands are used without any space.
  • In citations, an ampersand is used to connect a source with more than one author. The ampersand is generally used to connect the last two, e.g., Greene, Brown & Jones.
  • An ampersand is advisable when pointing out more than one addressee, e.g., Mr. & Mrs. Brown, or Rita & James Brown.
  • The proper abbreviation of the phrase et cetera or etc. is &c
  • Inside tables with limited space.

And that is all! Following the above rules will ensure error-free writing.

How to use the Ampersand Sign in Graphic Design

  1. Use the right style: The ampersand has many different styles. Choosing the one that fits your business will allow you to express yourself in a creative way. The italic variations are soft in nature and can be used to communicate something light-hearted. The Roman versions are formal, which are perfect for the professional world.
  2. Research: Be it graphic design or copywriting, good content depends upon how well you research. You can find thousands of ampersand variations on the net, which could fit perfectly for your brand.
  3. Experiment: What is creativity without experiment? Once you find the ampersand of your choice, experiment with colors, fonts, and size.
  4. It is not meant to replace a word: While the ampersand is used as a replacement for the word “and,” it is not the case in graphic design. The ampersand is display typography that is used for developing brand identity.

Companies that use the Ampersand Symbol in their Logos

Johnson & Johnson

Founded in 1886 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, it is currently ranked 36 on the fortune 500 list. The brand primarily focuses on pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and consumer packaged goods.

The ampersand is used creatively in the logo. Based on the signature of the company’s founder Jams Wood Johnson, it is among rare logos that have never been changed since its inception.

Procter & Gamble

Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, Procter & Gamble was founded by William Procter and James Gamble in 1837. The company specializes in healthcare and personal care products, which are divided into several segments. The segments include family care, baby, beauty and grooming, home care, and family care.

The P&G logo has been executed using a serif type which appears similar to Helvetica. The ampersand symbol beautifully syncs between P and G.

AT&T

The world’s largest telecommunication company, AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph) was founded in 1983 by Alexander Graham Bell and Gardiner Greene Hubbard. Ranked 9th on the Fortune 500 list, AT&T generated $181 billion in revenues as of 2020.

The telecommunication giant uses ClearviewATT as its primary typeface. The same is visible on the visual identity. The ampersand looks professional and elegant in the wordmark.

Dolce & Gabbana 

The Italian luxury fashion house, Dolce & Gabbana, was founded in 1985 by designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. Apart from haute couture, the fashion label is known for handbags, sunglasses, footwear, perfumes, jewelry, and cosmetics.

The minimalist logo looks contemporary and elegant. The Dolce & Gabbana wordmark has been executed using a geometric sans-serif typeface called Futura. The ampersand balances the wordmark along with making it look stylish.

M&M’s

Owned by Mars, Incorporated, M&M’s were introduced in 1941. M&M’s are small button-shaped multi-colored chocolates with a lowercase “m” printed on them. Today, M&M’s are sold in more than 100 countries in a variety of flavors.

Fact: M&M’s were inspired by chocolates carried by soldiers during the Spanish Civil War. The manufacturers of the chocolate made them using a method, which kept them from melting in warm climates.

The M&M’s logo is composed of a wordmark that has not changed over the years except for the colors. The ampersand is creatively used in the wordmark that gives it a fun vibe.

In Conclusion

While it is true that the origins of the ampersand remain vague, its meaning remains the same. From being a part of the well-preserved wall of Pompeii to becoming an inseparable part of modern-day brands, the Latin et has truly traveled a long way.

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