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.

    • Mys­tic Ranger

      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?

  • Dibya

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


    • Mys­tic Ranger

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