The Secret Life of the Ampersand

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Did you know that the English language and the Chinese language have a commonality?

The Chinese language is represented by characters, or logograms, which are symbols that represent whole words. The English language’s unofficial 27th character is a logogram, and it’s called the ampersand. The ampersand is a symbol that represents the word and. This is a function unique to English, because our alphabet is a compilation of individual sounds rather than whole words.

The ampersand’s name was born from slurring its description: “and (&) per se.” The Latin phrase per se means “in itself,” which, when describing the ampersand, means that the word and and the symbol & are one in the same. Like many things in English, the ampersand has Latin roots. It developed from a cursive combination of et (meaning and). The ampersand’s connection to Latin doesn’t stop there, as the phrase et cetera (meaning and so forth) can be abbreviated as &c, which is a logogram representation of et + c(etera).

The ampersand makes its way into our shorthand and casual written exchanges, company names, and academic and authorial citations. Using an ampersand to cite two authors’ collaboration on a work indicates that the authors worked alongside one another to equally contribute to the work’s creation, where joining two authors with and indicates that the collaborators worked on the same work separately, and more than likely, at different times.

There you have it. The ampersand—connecting words and shortening lists three letters at a time.

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