photo copyThe drop curtain at The Roundabout Theater‘s current production of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (well worth seeing) carries a reproduction of a page from an official government document describing the procedure for bringing a Petition of Right. My interest focuses on the marginal annotation pictured, which shows a usage which we no longer see — “etc.” written “&c.”

When you look at the script ligature for et,150px-Etlig.svg you can see how it would evolve into the ampersand. Though we are happy to use ampersands nowadays I doubt if too many people go the whole hog any more and write et cetera as &c. But it is a good idea I think: it looks a lot more interesting than etc.

Wikipedia has a pretty good article on ampersand which makes no bones about the derivation. “The word ampersand is a corruption of the phrase ‘and (&) per se and’, meaning ‘and (the symbol &) intrinsically (is the word) and’.                           Traditionally, in English-speaking schools when reciting the alphabet, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself (‘A’, ‘I’, and, at one point, ‘O’) was preceded by the Latin expression per se (‘by itself’). Also, it was common practice to add at the end of the alphabet the ‘&’ sign as if it were the 27th letter, pronounced and. As a result, the recitation of the alphabet would end in ‘X, Y, Z, and per se and’. This last phrase was routinely slurred to ‘ampersand’ and the term had entered common English usage by 1837. However, in contrast to the 26 letters, the ampersand does not represent a speech sound, although other characters that were dropped from the English alphabet, such as the Old English thorn, did.                                                                                     Through popular etymology, it has been falsely claimed that André-Marie Ampère used the symbol in his widely read publications, and that people began calling the new shape ‘Ampère’s and’.”

This explanation seems almost too neat to be true — I find Ampère hard to resist — but it is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary which gives 1837 as its first recorded occurrence. Although I was in a Scottish primary school learning my alphabet many years ago I regret that we did not ever have to chant per se.

The ampersand has tended to be a bit of a playground for the type designer. This link to Adobe shows some very elegant examples — Mr Janson’s is my favorite

See also my post on Colophon.