Shifty origin of the ampersand

I don’t believe this for a second:

This symbol is stylized et, Latin for “and.” Although it was invented by the Roman scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro in the first century B.C., it didn’t get its strange name until centuries later. In the early 1800s, schoolchildren learned this symbol as the 27th letter of the alphabet: X, Y, Z, &. But the symbol had no name. So, they ended their ABCs with “and, per se, and” meaning “&, which means ‘and.'” This phrase was slurred into one garbled word that eventually caught on with everyone: ampersand.

I wish it were true, because then all the other things at this site would be true as well, and that would be cool.


  1. #1 Cain
    November 12, 2009

    Sure you could learn about the origin of & from Greg or the linked site or you could learn about it and enjoy yourself while doing so.

  2. #2 Jordan Licht
    November 12, 2009

    The explanation for the equals sign matches what I’ve heard elsewhere.

    The lack of any sort of citation and the fact that the explanations sound very Wikipedia-y is worrying, though.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    November 12, 2009

    The equal sign explanaiton is similar to what I’ve heard, but the story is actually much more compolex than indicated, I think.

  4. #4 MRW
    November 12, 2009

    It doesn’t have the detail about schoolchildren, but Merriam-Webster supports the “& per se and” part.

  5. #5 John S. Wilkins
    November 12, 2009

    That’s what I learned back when I was interested in typography. Can’t say as to the correctness of the person formerly called the artist Prince, though.

  6. #6 MattR
    November 13, 2009

    Never heard the story before, but certain typefaces for ‘&’ certainly are a stylised ‘Et’.

    OS X’s built-in dictionary supports the ‘& per se and’, “chanted as an aid to learning the sign”.

  7. #7 Thony C.
    November 13, 2009

    The equal sign explanation is totally correct and in no way more complicated.

  8. #8 MadScientist
    November 13, 2009

    It seems bizarre to chant “and just because and” – there ought to be a law against that.

    I’ve seen metal type (as well as optical masks if anyone remembers the ancient optical typesetters) in which the & was clearly a Greek E + a small ‘t’ – which makes the “Latin ‘et'” explanation sound even more bizarre. Come to think of it, I think a few English publishers still use that style &.

  9. #9 Kapitano
    November 13, 2009

    Surely the question is: Who or what was “Amper” or “Ampers”?

    If “&” is an “Ampers-And” or an “Amper’s And”, it could be an inventive scribe, a publishing house, a maker of printing presses or anything else that might invent a short symbol for a common word.

  10. #10 Sarah L.
    November 13, 2009

    The Oxford English Dictionary agrees:

    “Corruption of ‘and per se-and’, the old way of spelling and naming the character &; i.e. ‘& by itself = and;’ found in various forms in almost all the dialect Glossaries.”

  11. #11 IanW
    November 13, 2009

    You guys are all wrong. It comes out of the expansion of Arabic influence in ninth century, along algebra, etc.

    In responding to the inevitable questions as to where these learned peoples came from bringing math & science to the west, and what their lands were like, they typically wound up their description of the treasures of the Middle East with “Ample Sand”….

  12. #12 Katharine
    November 13, 2009

    Was that dude in any way related to Marcus Tullius Cicero ?

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    November 13, 2009

    Thony, it is more compolicated. There may be a dual origin for =, and there were many other systems people used for the meaning of = (as in the result of the calculation is) and there is the “this is the same as that” vs. “this value will not be put into this” meaning which is even today more complex than there just being an equal sign. Et cet er a.

  14. #14 Thony C.
    November 13, 2009

    Greg you are confusing two different topics. There is indeed a long and very complex history of how various people expressed the fact that two things are equal whether in words, shortened words or symbols but what is being presented here is the introduction of our current most common symbol for equals, “=”. This symbol was indeed first introduced by Robert Recorde as stated on the page to which you linked. It would however be correct to say that there is a quite long history of its gradual acceptance as “the” symbol for equals.

  15. #15 Leo Martins
    November 13, 2009
  16. #16 Greg Laden
    November 13, 2009

    Thony: I’m not sure what this “confusion” thing of which you speak involves. In any event, I’m thinking of “equals” as a fairly road concept when I speak of the complexity. You are right that the double bar equals sign has a relatively simple history, but there are details left out of the linked site . There is some controversy over the actual first use of the double bar equals sign. Just ask the Oracle about that (wikipedia) I’m sure there is something in there about it.

  17. #17 Brent
    November 13, 2009

    An interesting commenter on the site said this:

    July 9th, 2007 at 6:54 am
    Funny. In french, “ampersand” is called “esperluette”, which comes from the same origin than the english word : it was the 27th letter of the alphabet, but instead of being pronounced “and, per se, and”, it was “et, per se, et”.

    If it is true, it might give some credibility the English version

  18. #18 Phillip IV
    November 13, 2009

    Katharine @ #12:

    Was that dude in any way related to Marcus Tullius Cicero ?

    In a way: he was one of Cicero’s slaves and served as his secretary. After Cicero set him free, he adopted his former owner’s names, as was customary. (He went on to edit and publish Cicero’s work after the latter’s death, and was also an esteemed author in his own right, although none of his works have survived.)

  19. #19 doug l
    November 13, 2009

    Modern keyboards have lost the “cent” symbol. Is that a 1 and the letter C for hundred? It seems too obvious.
    Do any keyboards have the ‘interbang’ symbol? An exclamation point joined to a question mark, created 1967 by a typographer in Denver.