Simanaitis Says

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I WORKED 33 years at a magazine (R&T) carrying an ampersand, so I have an affinity with this symbol. And, guess what, it’s one of the things described in Keith Houston’s most informative Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, W.W. Norton, 2013. Houston’s entertaining descriptions of the interrobang, ‽, and the octothorpe, #, have already encouraged SimanaitisSays items. My tidbits today are gleaned from Houston’s discussion of the ampersand, plus my usual sleuthing.

Cicero’s scribe Tiro. The ampersand evolved as an abbreviation of et, the Latin “and.” This is thanks to the Roman leader Cicero and his slave/scribe/secretary/confident Tiro.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 B.C.–43 B.C., Roman politician, orator, lawyer, a consul of Rome, 63 B.C. Image from Alas, slave/scribe/secretary/confidents rarely had sculptures commissioned.

In 63 B.C., Cicero wheeled and dealed with his corrupt and inept co-consul and ended up, at age 43, as the de facto leader of the Roman Republic. At that time, he directed his scribe Tiro to devise a Latin equivalent of Greek shorthand. One of the resulting abbreviations was the Tironian et, a symbol resembling “⁊.”

The Gaelic “and.” Houston notes, “Battered by changing writing practices and flighty typographic fashions, today the Tironian et survives in the world only in Irish Gaelic, where it serves as an ‘and’ sign on old mailboxes and modern road signs. Tiro’s et showed the way, but the ampersand was the real destination.”

This and other images from Shady Characters.

The Tironian et evolved into another abbreviation appearing as Pompeiian graffiti. Its exact date cannot be determined, but it was prior to the summer of 79 A.D. and the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius.

Graffiti at Pompeii, c. 79 A.D.

Jan Tschichold, 1953. Our familiar ampersand was still to come. Its evolution is described in a classic study by German graphic designer Jan Tschichold.

Ampersands in Jan Tschichold’s Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen, 1953. By the seventh-century Book of Kells, (No. 8), for example, it’s recognizable.

Amper? Ampère? And-per se-and? Maybe there was a graphic designer named Amper? Maybe French polymath André-Marie Ampère thought of it (the unit of electric current, the amp, is named for him).

I’m with my pals Merriam and Webster. Everyone, including Houston, seems to agree that in the 19th century the symbol “&” was often included as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Apparently one recited, “X, Y, Z, and per se and,” with the “per se” used in the sense of “by itself.”

Image from My Own Primer, or First Lessons in Spelling and Reading, by Rev. John P. Carter, 1857.

Merriam-Webster, argues that “Over the years, that phrase … was shortened by English speakers to ampersand.”

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (2 Volume Set) Oxford University, 1971, agrees. It cites an 1869 punchline in Punch, a British humor magazine: “Of all the type in the printer’s hand Commend me to the Amperzand.”

You probably had to be there.

And-pussy-and. Students being what they were (and are), they had fun with the 19th-century term and came up with “and-pussy-and,” “Ann Passy Ann,” and, no doubt, worse.

R&T. By the way, the magazine didn’t always have an ampersand. First published in 1947, it was Road and Track until early 1954.

From March 1954 on, “&” replaced the “and.” Celebrating the magazine’s 50th anniversary in 1997, we ginned up T-shirts with the classic Road and Track logo. Mine is around here somewhere. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

2 comments on “CELEBRATING &

  1. jlalbrecht64
    February 18, 2018

    I believe Latin “et” is “and” and “et al” is “and others” used when a list of names would be too long to list individually.

    • simanaitissays
      February 18, 2018

      Right you are. I suspect my typing fingers just got carried over to the more familiar “et al.” Corrected posthaste. Thanks.

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