The Evolution of the Ampersand

I might be blatantly stealing from this post, so please readt i bforet, and give it all the credit. A most amazing site about the history of all the cool typographic characters – which are often left unnoticed and not played much around with in typefaces (like the octothorpe = #), and very pretty characters entirely forgotten nowadays (like the interrobang = originally, and now ?!. Intermediately ‽). The interrobang, in big, so you can see how it’s made, if you’re too lazy to read the other awesome post.

The Interrobang

And what I write here might very well be covered in the next part of the history of the ampersand, that dude is writing. But when I read what he wrote today, it hit me so hard, I though I had to mention it here. So, here goes.

There are lots of variations of the ampersand. It does, happen to be one of the the characters typographers love playing around with, a lot. Because it has a lot of scope for beautifying, and it has perhaps the most character, for any character on the keyboard. Except for, maybe, ∞. But that isn’t played around much with, because it isn’t easily available on many keyboards (though, very delightingly, it is a simple ⌥ + 5 on a pretty Mac keyboard. Apples are awesome! :D) And also, because it has an inherent symmetry that can’t be played much around with. It’s just a pretty serene character.

Back to the topic, ampersands, have a lot of charisma, by themselves, and hence a topic of great interest, for typographers, designers, and particularly typography designers. So people messed around with them, since time immemorial. Though that is not quite the case, which one’d learn from that other post I referred to in the start.

Now I always wrote the ampersand as &. (I don’t really plan to elaborate on the grammatical specifications of the ampersand, which is so crudely “banned” in illiterate environments like primary schools, and amongst my family members who try to correct my english. Sure I suck at everything, but knowing rules, is something I try my best to do. So, I just said that I’m not going to tell you, that an ampersand is used when one wants to say and, but not as a conjunction (loosely describing). XYZ & co., could not be broken into two sentences, unless one wanted to go to lengths of inconvenience and nonsense. There, and ampersand is used. It is also used when I’m completing a list of related objects. “In the morning, we do this, that & that too, and in the evening, we can sleep off because we’ve done everything in the morning.” Disclaiming note: There is no reference or requirement that my explanation have any accuracy whatsoever. If you really want to trust things, go to wikipedia, or something, and make sure the references aren’t random non-existent links. Don’t trust me. Ever. 😛 )

Back to the history of the ampersand, I always wrote it as &. And since that’s what the computer keyboard has, and most places have that, people who used to write an alternative – I used to believe were unnecessarily trying to intervene casual handwriting with calligraphy. And I used to think of that as corny. How you care for your characters, to me, says a lot about you. 😉 Also, I could never understand what they’re trying to write, and if it made any sense. It often looked like a hindi ‘ka’ to me. And a misture of stuf. Sometimes, only a few times though, it looked like an E to me. With some beautification. I could see the e much more pronouncedly in the rare typefaces which’d use the alternate ampersand. What always puzzled me, is which is ‘correct’, and how in hell they are used for the same thing. They don’t look a bit similar to me. I mean, in retrospect I can see how they come about. That’s the main point of this post.

The alternate ampersand

In the other post I referred, the guy describes how ‘et’, was the derived shorthand for and, during some ancient Romans’ times (Cicero, the dude, go read that for specific info). And, etymologically (historically, perhaps) speaking, the ‘correct’ (original, actually) ampersand, is a ligature of the letters E and t. I’ll definitely not diverge so much as to tell you all about ligatures (that guys does cover… Once again, I’m not so distracted as to tell you that ligatures are pretty-looking sticking-togethers of two (and rarely, as in the case of ffi and ffl, more than two) characters, originated for greater flow in writing/reading, for prettier stuff (when people have to spend their lives writing thousand page books again and again, in a faultless beautiful handwriting, I’d only appreciate them not dying of creativity and making new typographic thingies, some of them also exhibiting a laziness of completing formations), and lately, with a more purposeful aim, of trying to avoid inconsistent printing, and letter overlaps, such as in the case of not-specifically kerned fs and is, which causes the terminal curve of the f to overlap with the dot of i. Notice a majority of serif-font headlines in your newspaper – unless it’s some awesome newspaper (and if it is, do tell me. I’d actually try to switch my subscription :O ), if a small f and i are consecutive letters, there’s be a small overlap in the i’s dot – which is maybe called a tittle – and the curve of the letter f, which is called a terminal. If it’s an unimaginably awesome newspaper (like the New York Times – and that comparison is not arbitrary – I’ve seen ligatures in it), the f and i would actually be combined with a ligature. It’s slightly less pronounced in Hindustan Times as far as I’ve seen, because all their headlines have arbitrarily changing fonts. An ffi ligature looks like ffi. And again, I wasn’t supposed to be telling that to you at all.

So, back to the ampersand, the original ampersand, is the one shown above. Though it’s not the very original one either! It’s just one in which the original meaning is rather preserved. Unlike the terribly modified one we now use. This image shows the ampersand in different typefaces, almost in a chronological order, which is pretty much the entire aim of this article, in a rather embarassingly small size (an image is more worth than a thousand words preceding it? I hope not. 🙂 ).

Ampersand evolution

I don’t know if Fago was the original et ligature used, but excepting that, one can see the laziness, along with the joining of curves, going from Palatino (2,2) -> Flux (1,2) -> Lithos (4,3) (this being the most significant jump/connect I never noticed until I knew the et-origin) -> Trajan (2,3) -> Helvetica Neue. Very cool, I thought.

  • Odonovandn

    tell more about the Bickham script – it’s radically different.

    • Are you referring to the attached image? It looks very pretty to me, but it seems rather similar to all the ‘modern’ i.e. relatively recent variations of the ampersand. They have broken apart from the structure which generally has the visible ‘t’, but I would believe that is because they weren’t trying to be etymologically coherent. They were trying to make the existing variation which looks more like a mirror reflection of a cursive ‘S’, pretty. Would you differ in your opinion or thoughts?

  • Actually, Its you who makes the ‘&’ different every time you write it with your hand(Sometimes, Handwriting matters ;)). Anyway, I enjoyed this. Thanks..


    • That is probably what I’m talking about when I say that the letterform evolved to be more… convenient to write. 🙂