The origin of the ampersand can be traced back to the Latin word “et,” meaning “and.” The E and the T that make up this word were occasionally written together to form a ligature (a character consisting of two or more joined letters). Writing the word this way saved the writer time, with one letter flowing seamlessly into the next – a form of cursive or joined up writing.
It’s impossible to say exactly when this symbol was first written down, but an early example has been found as graffiti on a wall in Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. It can be very difficult to trace the development of symbols over time, but with the ampersand the work has already been done for us, by one Jan Tschichold, a typographer born in Leipzig in 1902. Tschichold devoted an entire study to the development of the ampersand in his 1953 booklet “The Ampersand: Its Origin and Development,” where he collected hundreds of examples of the symbol throughout history, recording its development from the piece of ancient graffiti to the familiar ‘&’ used today. Within this collection are examples from the eighth century which are already recognizable as the modern ampersand.
For such an ancient symbol, the name ‘ampersand’ is surprisingly modern. First seen in the late 18th century, it comes from an alteration of “and per se and.”
Traditionally, when reciting the alphabet in English-speaking schools, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself (“A”, “I”, and, at one point, “O”) was repeated with the Latin expression per se (“by itself”). This habit was useful in spelling where a word or syllable was repeated after spelling; e.g. “d, o, g—dog” would be clear but simply saying “a—a” would be confusing without the clarifying “per se” added. It was also common practice to add the “&” sign at the end of the alphabet as if it were the 27th letter, pronounced as the Latin et or later in English as 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.
In everyday handwriting, the ampersand is sometimes simplified in design as a large lowercase epsilon (Ɛ) or a backwards numeral 3 superimposed by a vertical line. The ampersand is also often shown as a backwards 3 with a vertical line above and below it or a dot above and below it.
Ampersands are commonly seen in business names formed from partnership of two or more people, such as “Johnson & Johnson.”
The phrase et cetera (“and so forth”), usually written as etc. can be abbreviated &c. representing the combination et + c(etera).
The ampersand can be used to indicate that the “and” in a listed item is a part of the item’s name and not a separator (e.g. “Rock, pop, rhythm & blues, and hip hop”).