The most intriguing & unique letter in the alphabet is no doubt the 27th. Boasting with curvilinear features that have a quite sensible typographic history, the ampersand is an old character growing in popularity with designers & trendsetters alike.
But where did this un-monotonously, ever changing character come from? The ampersand was born as graffiti on a wall in Pompeii in 1st century Rome, & modeled after one of the worlds first shorthand systems, the Tironian. The symbol originates from “et”, the Latin word for “and”, where in the late 8th century, the letters in “et” morphed into a symbol similar to todays modern ampersand. But the name didn’t come coincidently with the character, and was accidentally born about a thousand years after.
In the 19th century, “and per se” was another term used for the nameless symbol as the ampersand was tacked onto the alphabet as the 27th character. When British schoolchildren would recite their alphabet, they would often mispronounce the term, & would instead say ampersand. The ampersand name originated from this mondengreen, & has stuck ever since.
“It should have gone extinct a long time ago, but has survived nonetheless. We use it so frequently that it’s easy to forget its origin as two letters entangled, spelling out a word in Latin. The written forms of Latin had scores of contractions and other marks for abbreviation. All of those marks died alongside the Latin language itself, except for the ampersand,” Tobias Frere-Jones states. “Usually, letters help to form one another, by setting precedents and providing contexts. But the ampersand doesn’t receive any of that support. That makes it hard to draw, because so many different shapes might look plausible at first. But it also opens an unusually large window for experimentation and risk. It’s how the designer can put on a fireworks show in this one shape.”
Its idiosyncratic & infrequent design styles reflect the eccentric versatility that no other character quite carries like the ampersand does. The character gets much more leeway in design because its predominate uses in display type, where designers are allowed the opportunity to be more creative. Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler & Co explains quite perfectly why us designers are obsessed with this whimsical character. ”It’s always an opportunity for adventure. Even the most conservative typefaces can give sanctuary to a whimsical ampersand or two.”
& is hotter than ever in the design world, and only gaining speed. Although it should have gone extinct long ago with its fellow counterparts, the flamboyant character has survived throughout years of change. The ampersand still finds a way to stay fresh in the modern trends of today, & won’t be disappearing anytime soon.