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Why do we call ‘&’ ampersand?

We all know that “&” means “and”. But why is it so and why we call it “ampersand”?
It all started when Romans began to combine the letters “e” and “t” into a similar symbol, representing the word “et”, Latin for “and”.

Graphical evolution of the ampersand

Evolution of the Ampersand
Evolution of the Ampersand
From Wikimedia

More than any explanation, the image on the side describes the evolution of the graphical form of the ampersand, from the “et” combination (in Old Roman cursive) up to the current curly form.

Ampersand in the English alphabet

Old alphabet (XIX century)
Alphabet from Dixie Primer
From Archive.org

The very word (“and”) was included in the English alphabet very early: one of the first examples dates back to 1011. And the Old English alphabet was still in use into medieval times…. When Old English was discarded in favour of the modern English we are now familiar with, the ampersand maintained its status of member of the alphabet (to coin a phrase) to a degree, with some regions and dialects opting to include it until the mid-1800s.

The picture above is from a 1863 book called The Dixie Primer, For The Little Folks, available here in its entirety — a book which like many around even today, aimed at teaching children their ABCs and some basic words and phonics. And it clearly demonstrates that “&” was indeed the last letter of the alphabet!

Pronouncing

The ampersand was simply pronounced “and” in origin and the symbol was actually replacing the whole word. “A”, “I” and “&” were the only alphabet symbols that were also proper English words! But with a difference: “A” and “I” are pronounced the same way regardless of whether they were used as letters or words, while “&” was pronounced “and”….

So, as a result of that, when “&” was part of the alphabet, the sequence was pronounced

A, B, C, …. X, Y, Z and, per se, ‘and’

meaning that “&” was by itself: in Latin per se.

With time, “ and, per se, ‘and’ ” became ampersand.

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