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The History of ‘Ampersand’ (2020) (merriam-webster.com)
315 points by graderjs 62 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 177 comments

I really like reading about linguistic origins like that one. Makes me reflect on my irrational hatred towards reading "could of", "would of" and the likes. I mean, I still get a seizure reading it, but I can only imagine some old dude yelling at the youngsters in the late 1800's like "it's called 'and per se, and'! Not ampersand! Jeez you all are the reason the english language is degrading!"

Oh, this sort of thing goes way back… here’s Swift from 1712, for instance:

> I do here … complain to your Lordship … that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities … Gentlemen … introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, … as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds … They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable: And their Taste in time became so depraved, that what was a first a Poetical Licence, not to be justified, they made their Choice, alledging, that the Words pronounced at length, sounded faint and languid … Instances of this Abuse are innumerable: What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.

A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue [taken from https://www.jacklynch.net/Texts/proposal.html]

Or in other words: “It’s ‘dess-turb-uhd’, with THREE vowels! Not that nasty word ‘dess-turbd’ which is impossible to pronounce! What a horrible degradation of the language!”

(For more of this, Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language contains a highly amusing list of examples dating all the way back to Cicero in 46 BC, who complains that the speech of his day was sadly degraded from the great orators of the past. I’m certain I’ve even seen an Ancient Egyptian complaint along these lines, though sadly I can’t seem to find it now.)

It is interesting how much more complex ancient languages were. Just look at Greek and Latin. So many tenses, aspects, time, etc. It doesn't seem odd that things become simpler over time. People are inherently lazy and if they can get by with nicknames, abbreviations, fewer syllables, simpler syntax and grammar, they will. Though this does beg the question, why in the world were language so much more complex the farther back you go? You would think languages would have been simple from the start.

Disclaimer: not a linguist.

Languages don't really become systematically simpler over time, or they would've had to start out incredibly complicated. They have some tendency to cycle between lots of grammatical forms (like Latin) and few grammatical forms with lots of helper words (like English).

("Simple" and "complex" is debatable; English's snarl of helper words is infamously hard to learn.)

It's obvious how you go in the "less inflection" direction, but how do you go in the "more inflection" one? The answer is that you start with helper words, which evolve into enclitics (fragments of words attached to other words, like the n't in 'can't' and 'shouldn't'), and eventually those become suffixes and prefixes, and then merge into the words they're attached to, creating grammatical inflections!

This process is where all(?) of the grammatical forms in Greek/Latin/etc are thought to have come from, afaik. Proto-Indo-European, one of the earliest languages we can reconstruct, seems to have been pretty close to the apex of this process, having just consolidated a bunch of enclitics into grammar.

So the goofy internet 'verbn't' trend is actually a possible glimpse of how English could acquire a negative verb form like Japanese has!

From what I gather, languages don't necessarily get simpler over time, but they do tend to get simpler as the number of speakers increases, particularly if the speakers learn it as a second language.

Russians tend to drop articles in English, Indonesians don't really distinguish between "he" and "she", many learners forget the -s in third person singular verbs ("he make"), irregular forms get regularised ("teacher teached me").

Some of the most complicated languages are spoken by small groups in Africa or Papua Guinea, with features such as an evidential aspect (different verb endings depending on whether you saw something with your own eyes, heard about it, concluded it, etc.) [1], or Mother-in-law-speech, where the language you use changes when you speak to your in-laws [2].

Pidgins tend to be very simple and regular, by contrast.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidentiality

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avoidance_speech

That's because the Russian language doesn't have articles, but other complexities of the language that don't exist in English convey the distinction between, say, "a boy" and "the boy".

> Though this does beg the question....

You are raising the question, not begging it.


I have all but given up on this one. It's now notable when I hear someone use the phrase in the "correct" way. Usually the person ends up being someone who majored in philosophy.

This progression is likely due to the fact that people raise questions much more often than they beg questions. Once the phrase started being used in the former sense, it was bound to overtake the latter.

"Begging the question" is a mistranslation of a mistranslation. Saying that it means something other than what people use it to mean is the worst form of pedantry.

From the first sentence of that article:

> Begging the question means "to elicit a specific question as a reaction or response," and can often be replaced with "a question that begs to be answered."

This isn’t really true — in fact, it’s exactly the same fallacy as in Swift’s article. Certainly at a glance Greek and Latin look a lot more complicated than English does, and certainly this is true with respect to their morphology (how words are created from smaller parts), but morphology is far from the only part of language. For instance: word order is pretty much entirely unconstrained in Latin, but English has much more rigid rules about word order, which are nonetheless often fairly subtle and complex to delineate. Or: we can distinguish no less than 11 different tense/aspect combinations in English, but this is non-obvious because they rely on combinations of verb form and auxiliary verb(s), and the auxiliaries themselves nearly all have several different interpretations depending on where and how they are used (see Dixon’s A Semantic Approach to English Grammar for more).

Besides, even when you just look at morphology alone, ancient languages are no more complex on the whole than modern ones. Thus consider Russian, which has more cases than Latin (IIRC). Or Hindustani, which uses an entirely different case system depending on the aspect of the verb. Or Swahili, where the verb inflects for both direct subject and object (but not always!), which have no less than 18 irregular genders, as well as for 28 tense/aspect/mood forms (if Wikipedia is to be trusted) — amongst other categories.

What happens, it turns out, is that languages can grow more complex over time as well as simpler. People do tend naturally to simplify, delete and abbreviate syllables in words — but they also tend to merge words together and elaborate simple constructions to more complex ones, in order to retain the expressive capabilities of their language. I’ve already mentioned Deutscher’s bool The Unfolding of Language; I will recommend it again here, since it has a great summary of exactly how these processes work and interact with each other in order to generate complexity in language.

My idea about that is that people had far fewer fields of endeavour to express themselves in, and yet they had the same cranial volume and brain complexity as we do today, and societies were also relatively similar in patterning (but I guess smaller in size and complexity than today), basically we had similarly complex mental and emotional lives back then as now, but Language was one of the few ways people could actually express all of that "stuff" that now comes out in so so so so many creative ways: the trillion fields of formal and informal endeavour we now have (actuarial science, chemistry, TikTok creators, professional YouTubers, e-sports, parkour, commenting on HN, creating RFCs, creating web standards, programming, East Asian studies, film, music composition, sports medicine, comparative mythology, life hacking, race studies, and so on and so on and so on....)

As a result Language was heavily over-engineered back in the day when it was one of the few ways people could get all that "out".

The main process by which languages become simpler (when they do. It is not a universal rule) is when large numbers of adults have to learn the language. This usually happens during mass migrations involving intermarriage. The newcomers don’t learn all the complex rules and nuances. They tend to leave out some of the more complex parts. If there are enough of these newcomers, then their children start speaking a version of the language that has been simplified by their parent.

English went through this when the Norse invaded England and controlled up to 3/4 of it for several hundred years. As they did not have a large social separation from the English, they tended to intermarry with the English, and because their own language was similar but not the same, it was easier to speak a simpler kind of “pidgin” based on Anglo-Saxon but dropping things like gender and declensions that didn’t match the Norse versions.

When the Normans invaded, they stayed socially separated from the English for much longer and didn’t try to learn English, so there was no repeat of the simplification process. In contrast, the Norman French vocabulary migrated into English and seriously complicated the spellings in English.

Probably latin wasn't the start ;-). We are not 2,000 years old hehe.

> Or in other words: “It’s ‘dess-turb-uhd’, with THREE vowels!

Some of these pronunciations still survive, such as "I learned* the words to the song" vs "the learned gentleman".

* as a kid I was taught to write "learnt" but I never see that in the US.

“learnt” is mostly British English.

> Or in other words: “It’s ‘dess-turb-uhd’, with THREE vowels! Not that nasty word ‘dess-turbd’ which is impossible to pronounce!

I had a Professor who pronounced the -ed that was at the end of a word as its own syllable. She loved doing that, and it actually wasn't noticable after a short while.

> What a horrible degradation of the language!”

It's not that different from people today saying "wanna" for "want to" or even "me wan go home" for "I want to go home".

Idioms and dialects abound!

I love this, thanks! "Kids these days" of language. Oh well, I'm gonna stop correcting of's used instead of have's - don't want to end up in The Unfolding of Language II. But I will definitely check out the first one, thanks for the tip!

Is this a serious article from Swift? It has "A Proposal" in the name, and we all know about his more famous "Modest Proposal". I can't tell if this is a masterful 18th Century troll job or if he was actually in earnest.

Even if it's satire, it's got to be satirizing an attitude that actually exists - otherwise it's just nonsense.

Given how prevalent the eyeroll-inducing grammar nazis have been in my lifetime (I am happily recovered from that affliction, myself), I have no trouble believing they existed in the 1700s, too.

Sadly, the art of Speaking in Capital Letters has been lost to the Ages.

Many 18th century writers of English capitalized nouns the way it's done in German. For example, the US Constitution does this. But it was already going away by then.

It still exists, but it is rarely taught. When it is time for you to learn it, you will learn The Way of the Capital Letter, and anyone paying even the smallest amount of Attention to your words will Hear them in your speech.

Ah but now we have the informal-internet-speak version of using capital letters to emphasize things that are Very Important.

That’s old school. My favourite source where you can clearly see it in use is Winnie the Pooh; Milne rather liked the style.

I LOVE this. Thank you! :)

I had a writing professor in college whose obsession with forcing us to write and speak "Queen's English" really soured me on hearing people correct someone else's grammar. Said professor went so far as to author his own style guide that we were forced to use for class because the existing ones were wrong for this reason or that.

This made me realize that the rules are arbitrary and what matters is if people can understand what you're saying.

A valuable life lesson though. I've followed coding standards that I don't entirely agree with¹²³, but breaking them would cause more discomfort for the larger project than the minor irritation keeping them would cause me. I'm sure the feeling is common in other career areas too, particularly professional writing.


[1] Not using extra space to line up similar parts of similar lines when grouped together, for instance, I find it makes things easier to read and alter afterwards

[2] Some codebases absolutely hate one-line if statements, it must be in a block even if only one statement is inside the conditional and the brackets must each be on their own line. I get that for more complex code it breaks things up visually in a way that is helpful, but stretching out 20..30 characters over four lines, artificially lengthening a function significantly if it happens multiple times…

[3] One FOSS project I once submitted a patch for insisted on absolutely no inline comments – all explanation had to be in the comment block at the head of the function declaration. It almost discouraged commenting, and I like to comment liberally.

Point 2 is also for security[1], especially in languages with non-hygienic[2] macro systems such as C. But as another commenter (yissp) already pointed out, even without macros it can quickly go bad. I once liked omitting blocks in if, while, for etc., but stopped doing it altogether and it now jumps out as a wart to me, too. It's just too risky for too little benefit.

What I disagree with sometimes is whether the block needs to start on a new line. For example I would like to do this:

    if (foo = bar) { blah(); }
But my former team was against it, and my current team uses a style enforcement tool (which I do agree with in principle), so I don't.

Point 1 is fine by me and the team: We embrace "tabs for indentation, spaces for alignment", so that fits into the philosophy.

Point 3, i.e. disallowing inline comments, seems ill-conceived and bad to me.

[1] Actually correctness, which often means security.

[2] Or rather a generalization of what "hygienic macro" means.

> if (foo = bar) { blah(); }

I'm happy with that. In fact I usually do that to avoid schoolboy errors when expanding to multiple statements later. It doesn't add much (a few characters, not three lines) and allows for lining up parts (ala my point 1) when there are a couple or more of lines doing very similar (but not so much so they can be usefully reduced to a function/macro).

Ah. Of course I managed to make a mistake in that minuscule amount of code, = should be == of course. At least a modern compiler would have warned without extra parenthesis.

[2] For me it has to do with scanning code. If if-statements are always in a block, then I can easily scan to or past it without having to stop and read what it actually says. But, if it is in a single line I have to stop and read it to understand that it is actually an if statement that was put onto a single line.

I've made the mistake of trying to add an extra statement to a one-line if and forgetting to add a block too many times. Although now GCC has -Wmisleading-indentation which should catch that.

Yes, exactly, it's just not worth the risk. It gets worse with preprocessor macro systems like C has, where something might look correct until you follow the macro definition.

Username checks out

> This made me realize that the rules are arbitrary and what matters is if people can understand what you're saying.


You're showing a case though where you diverge from the current conventions so much that it's incredibly hard to understand what you're saying, so I'm not sure you're going against OP's point.

By the way, as a European person (speaking multiple European languages, even) living in the US for a decade, you quickly give up on taking language "rules" too seriously or else you go insane.

What English (partly US English, partly "English in general") does to foreign words is... interesting. Also interesting is that unlike any other language I speak, reading a word in English is often not sufficient to know how it's pronounced. Yes, French's orthography for example seems enormously complex ("Bordeaux"?) compared to e.g. German or Italian, but it's still consistent.

If I had to guess, I'd think that's too a large part because of things like the Great Vowel Shift, and loan words from multiple languages. (Not a linguist though, so eh, just stupid guesses.)

> What English (partly US English, partly "English in general") does to foreign words is... interesting. Also interesting is that unlike any other language I speak, reading a word in English is often not sufficient to know how it's pronounced. Yes, French's orthography for example seems enormously complex ("Bordeaux"?) compared to e.g. German or Italian, but it's still consistent.

The French don't seem to agree.


Okay yeah, especially around the "-ent" ending, and sometimes whether a final s is pronounced, it can be ambiguous. So maybe my feeling that it's much harder in English than in French is just personal bias. German and Italian on the other hand... (of course every language still has exceptions, plenty of).

While I'm probably responding to a joke, intelligibility isn't simply a binary. It's how we're able to have interesting connections between dialects or Danish, Swedish, Norwegian for example.

The first rule of communication is knowing your audience and if one's language can be adapted in simplicity, complexity, lexicon, grammar, content, style, voice, medium &c to be more readily understood, then it's in the speaker's benefit to do so. If GP's teacher could not earnestly understand vulgar English then by all means adapt, but the sense that I'm getting is that they were being obstinate on purpose and those sort of people should live in the communicative bubble of isolation they put themselves in.

Well, my "joke" was ment as a demonstration, that the rules have the purpose to make it easy to be understood. I bent the rules a bit, so that it should still be possible to decode my message, but not easily. This should demonstrate that rules are not completely arbitrary, even if (some) people can understand what I am saying.

> This made me realize that the rules are arbitrary and what matters is if people can understand what you're saying.

I disagree. Kind of. Like all languages, English is a tool. The more complicated that tool is, the harder it is to learn/use, the less effective it is. YAML and HTML are easy examples of how the complexity of a language can hurt its utility. There's something to be said for maintaining a formal spec that guards against changes that would introduce unnecessary complexity.

However... a spec like that doesn't exist for English - at least not one that most of its users agree upon - and being able to understand what people are trying to communicate is absolutely the most important feature of any language. Therefor, I consider it a faux pas to strictly enforce arbitrary rules like your professor did. Frankly, it sounds like he was just using his position to take out his frustration on others.

> This made me realize that the rules are arbitrary and what matters is if people can understand what you're saying.

Not that you can learn anything unless it sticks to a certain set of rules.

An _un_certain set of rules, you mean. Especially as we're on about language. (-: If the set of rules were certain, we might not be having the these discussions; yea, and proscriptive grammarians and tyrants of spelling would us all be.

"Ampersand" is like "could of", and yet is not like it.

Ampersand is a change in sounds, for the sake of easier pronunciation:

   and per se and  # original
   andperseand     # remove spaces
   andpers'and     # drop extra vowel, for slightly faster speech
   an'pers'and     # drop extra consonant, for same reason
   anpersand       # drop apostrophes
   ampersand       # transform "n" to its neighbor, "m", because it's easier to say before "p"
These are all merely changes in sounds, the consonants and the vowels, the "phonemes" as linguists call them. The course from "am not" to "ain't" follows a similar pattern.

"Could of", on the other hand, is not phonological but morphological --- a change in meaning, because "of" doesn't mean "have". Or maybe it is merely typographic, because what they could have written is "could've", which sounds the same as "could of" --- and it's probably what they meant but simply made the same mistake as when you accidentally write "there" instead of "their".

And I don't believe your repulsion is "irrational", as you say. There is value in preserving the current state of language, of slowing down its changes, simply for the sake of intelligibility, for now and for posterity. A single instance of one person correcting someone else's "could of" is a like throwing an ice cube atop a melting glacier, but like voting in a general election, but it is no reason to just give up. (Of course the stakes are low, so we must say it only if it will be well received.)

Now there is a class of "corrections" that are misguided, I think, like the rule that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. That arose from lovers of Latin, which doesn't end sentences in prepositions because it is impossible, and they were trying to make English more like Latin.

This guy has a great set of examples of rules in English that started as bastardizations, fabrications, arbitrary preferences of some particular writer, etc.: https://youtu.be/JTslqcXsFd4?t=444.

Yes, language evolves torwars comfortability, written and spoken. What is incorrect today if used enough will become official.

I watched a linguistics course online many years ago and that was my key take away.

Water in french was originally something like "aqua", and it devolved into eau, all along the way people complained they were saying it wrong.

Language also evolves away from easy of use. For instance, complexity and secrets are created to distinguish one class of speaker from another. Rules are invented for no higher reason than distinguishing those educated in them from those not. English is full of such rules, rules we base in deep history but on examination were the creation of 18th schoolmasters or book publishers.

The King/Queens English? Most English monarchs barely spoke the language. They were far better with French or German.

> Most English monarchs barely spoke the language.


Famously of course the first two Georges, perhaps William of Orange, definitely of course William the Conquerer and his immediate successors, but I think most is a gross exaggeration.

Read through any royal writings. English was almost never used. French is by far the most commonly used language of English royals.

For certain legal written uses. The claim that the King was also the monarch of France was only dropped from the official titles lat in the French revolution. Then again, the charter of my high school was signed by Charles I and is written in English, like all the other colonial era official documents I've seen (a small number!) were.

But as a spoken language, there is plenty of evidence the other way. All the Tudors and Stuarts were English speakers, for example.

I have heard that French was the vernacular of the late Romanovs, about which I am…dubious.

…or Old Norse (e.g. Cnut), or Dutch (William of Orange), any others?

Spanish, dutch ... they were products of european houses, few of which spoke any english.

> it's called 'and per se, and'

It was more that they just called it "and". Rattling off the last few letters of the alphabet, it would have sounded awkward if they ended it with "X, Y, Z, and and". So they added the per se to indicate that and was the letter's name and not just stammering on a conjunction without finishing the sentence.

  A, B, C, and D,
  Pray, playmates, agree.
  E, F, and G,
  Well, so it shall be.
  J, K, and L,
  In peace we will dwell.
  M, N, and O,
  To play let us go.
  P, Q, R, and S,
  Love may we possess.
  W, X, and Y,
  Will not quarrel or die.
  Z, and ampersand,
  Go to school at command.
- A Book of Nursery Rhymes (1901)


I was once returning to Vancouver. Ahead of me in the Canada Customs` line was a woman and a boy around 6 years old. He was singing the Alphabet Song; when he triumphantly got to `Ecks, Why, and Zee’, the woman said `Stop it! They’ll think we’re Americans’.

She had a point, it’s `Zed’.

I learned about & down a wikipedia rabbit hole and was also so intrigued. Etymology and lexicology writ large are very interesting.. For example, look up the history of the classic "ye olde shoppe". The mix of cultures and the effects of time are amazing.

One of my favorite word derivations is feamyng which is a collective noun for ferrets. The word itself is like a game of telephone gone wrong. Multiple mistypings in dictionaries, etc. give it quite the interesting word history.

If you like etymology, I highly recommend The History of English Podcast. It covers the history of ampersand among many, many other things.

Yes it's very funny how much overlap there is between people who value scientism and people who enforce static usage rules as if they are objectively correct.

Among the people whose area of scientific study is the use of language and how it conveys meaning, and especially how and why it changes over time, you will not find very many hard prescriptivists. It's not wrong per se it's just not a very useful model in most contexts.

What ticks me of is when people use then instead of than. English is not my main language so the first time I read it I was very confused.

Same here english is not my native language. There are many other errors that makes me cringe, like people writing "could of". Most of them are done by people whose english is their primary language. But on the other hand I also see people doing similar errors in my mother tongue.

I remember an SAT question about "taking for granted". One of the other options was "taking for granite". I had never wondered about how this mostly-spoken phrase would be written out, or how the orthography would shed light on its meaning.

I was surprised to realize that a phrase I knew very well, I had probably never read (and definitely never written).

I'm a native english speaker and I can't tell you the difference between then and than. lol.

I'm sure there's a better example, but I've always explained it like so:

"than" is for comparisons; e.g. smaller _than_, older _than_

"then" is used to indicate timing; chew _then_ swallow, wash _then_ rinse

It's certainly an incomplete explanation, but if someone else can share an explanation that is more succinct and/or complete than my own, I'd be interested in seeing it.

That is exactly how we learned it too and I can't figure out why people don't use these correctly.

Another one for "than" is also if you can replace it with "instead of". "Rather than learning the language, he went to a football game". Not "Rather - then learning the language later - he went to a football game first". Well actually there 'then' is correct but I had to make a broken up sentence that you would never write but you might say it. If you want to tell someone about this, you start with 'rather' then think of explaining first that he did go learn afterwards so you interject your own sentence and then go on. But when writing you have enough time to form a proper sentence.

Of course auto correction can play a role nowadays. I wrote "of" more often recently and a typoed "ofg" might be corrected to "of" and not "off". Sure.

Now what I do understand is that native speakers actually forget the rules meaning the "why" something is correct. After a while you can usually just tell what's correct. It just "sounds right" and you can't explain it to someone else.

I appreciate this example. I don't know why these two words always stump me. I feel pretty capable grammatically, but my brain completely forgets to remember these examples.

I'll add these examples to my notes so I can write correct emails at least. lol

I can try:

I finished the job THEN my boss paid me. I finished the job AFTER WHICH my boss paid me.

I'd much prefer him paying me THAN not paying me. I'd much prefer if he paid me AS OPPOSED TO not paying me.

For my dialect at least they sound the same, so in my brain they are the same.

Maybe that's my problem. I'm from the Southeast US (rednecks) and we pronounce them both dth-i-n. It's hard for me to type out but it's a harder I sound as the vowel. We use the same vowel for PEN (It goes PIN) and the name Ben goes BIN like BIN laden.

Napron => Apron is another hilarious change, but older. What I take away from this is that pretty much every major culture “butchers” (or evolves, if you like) words on an ongoing basic.

"And the like"


> The letter I, for example, would be referred to with the phrase I per se, I, which means in Latin "I by itself (is the word) I." When the 27th quasi-letter & was referred to it was called & per se, and, meaning "& by itself (is the word) and." That read as "and per se and."

This explanation is mixed up and confusing. It isn't "I per se, I" that is somehow "by itself I", it is merely "per se I". The reason you get another "and" in front was because it was at the end of the alphabet song: "[and] [per se &]".


> Thus the end of the recitation would be: “X, Y, Z and per se and”. This last phrase eventually became ampersand, and the term was in common English usage by around 1837.

Indeed, this article is embarrassingly wrong. Not sure how anyone could write

> The letter I [...] would be referred to with the phrase I per se, I, which means in Latin "I by itself (is the word) I."

It's the letter I, not the word. It's like a half-remembered explanation

Thank you, the article left me very confused about the logic behind two 'and'.

One summer I had a job in the Penn library improving the catalog data for their medieval Latin manuscripts. The abbreviations were wild. Here is a handbook of them (which includes & = et and &-bar = etiam): https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/213385262.pdf (pdf). I can see how being "literate" was tougher then than now.

There were different handwriting styles, depending on the writing speed (inversely proportional to the quality and thus expense). For example the Codex Sinaiticus is gorgeous: https://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx?book=26&c... (That's a Greek example, not Latin---sorry, I'm not much of a Latinist anymore.) I guess if you don't have mechanical type, you are very motivated to speed up writing. The books I looked at were pretty hasty.

Almost everything I saw was a treatise on medicine and biology. They were all "commentaries on Aristotle". I guess that's what you had to do to publish in those days.

Besides the paleography, I had to trace the origin & date of the paper used, which was possible from watermarks. We had two huge reference volumes giving known watermarks so you could narrow things down a lot---but often you didn't get an exact match. There was a whole symbology there too.

> etiam

This reminds me of some of the words and phrases in Latin that can be somewhat intuitive for someone with familiarity with modern romance ... "iam" meaning "now", having descendants in Spanish "ya" or "jamás", French "déjà" or "jamais". You can look at "etiam" and read it as "y ya". Yet when I studied Latin in an English speaking place I imagine that some took it as a separate word to memorize, not a conjunction of two others.

This also makes me think of the other way to say "and", other than "et": by saying the words together and adding -que to the second one. Eg. "senatus populusque" = "senate and people".

This article takes its content from the book "Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks" by Keith Houston. The book originated on his website as a series of articles, the "&" ones are:

- The Ampersand, part 1 of 2 (https://shadycharacters.co.uk/2011/06/the-ampersand-part-1-o...)

- The Ampersand, part 2 of 2 (https://shadycharacters.co.uk/2011/06/the-ampersand-part-2-o...)

- The Ampersand, part 2½ of 2 (https://shadycharacters.co.uk/2011/07/the-ampersand-part-2%c...)

I'd highly recommend the website and the book, and also his new book "The Book" about the origin of the book.

I need a spoiler, were there ever common names including it?

I would have used it! :)

&, the artist formerly known as Ƭ̵̬̊, who was once known as Prince and had been born as Prince Rogers Nelson. [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_(musician)#:~:text=In%2....

I second your recommendation for The Book book, it’s a beautifully produced hardback, extremely well written and researched.

In German it's called the Kaufmanns-Und (roughly merchant's/salesman's And). I think it may be related to advertising, if you advertise a product name (or a producer name) with an "and" in it, the ampersand is much shorter and more visually appealing

Which is consistent with many Romance languages, where it's called a variation of “commercial and”. Including the Italian “e commerciale”, Portuguese “e comercial”, and Spanish “y comercial”.

And French "Et commercial". It's sometimes written as a form closer to "et", corresponding to the ligature outlined in the article

That's like how the symbol @ used to be called "commercial at" (this is its Unicode name). This is because of how sales were listed on receipts and such, think "4 apples @ 50¢ each".

"@" has a lot of interesting names - monkey, herring, pig's tail, strudel, mouse, elephant's trunk, and "arroba" (a unit of weight, like a bushel).

Yeah, in Dutch it's "apenstaartje" (little monkey's tail), although the last decades, it's becoming far more common to use the English "at".

it's "Klammeraffe" in German, spider monkey, and figuratively a small monkey clinging to / clasping someone or something.

It's "zavináč" in Czech -- pickled herring. If you buy them in a jar, they're rolled up, looking a lot like that symbol.

I kept a collection of names for @ on my first website: https://web.archive.org/web/19981202002949/www.student.nada....

My favorite name for “@“ is “rogue”

I prefer ”tourist”

What languages or cultures or regions use this form?

It's particularly popular in Yendor, I believe.

Spread from there to Ancardia and Moria as well, though.


In the 90s/00s it was often referred to as 'miukumauku' in Finnish, roughly translates as 'meowmeow', as in the sound a cat makes, since it somewhat looks like a sleeping cat.

In Russian, it's usually called `dog`. No idea why.

A dog will always perform a certain spiral inwards walk pattern before it comes to rest on bedding.

I forget the exact details, but I've seen it called a snail in some programming language or other - I remember getting an error message along the lines of 'unexpected snail at line x'! I wish I could recall what language it was - perhaps something verilog related?

In italian we call it "chiocciola", which translates to snail.

@ "Princess Leia hair"

In the subcontinent, almost everybody pronounces this "at-the-rate-of". I guess they learn this in school or something. Makes you do a double take the first couple of times someone reads you an email adress :)

Very briefly worked in a metal fabrication shop in the last gasp of pre-CAD and electronic records. Writing out the bill of materials (by hand, to be typed up) involved a lot of numbers - measurements, quantities, and prices.

Using symbols like # before a quantity, @ before a unit price, or ⌀ before a diameter was considered critical for minimizing confusion. I think it was meant to work like a sort of Hungarian notation for numbers, so if someone’s transcribing them into an order form or something, and they find themselves copying a diameter into a price column, they catch themselves on the type mismatch.

It never seemed like there was much room for ambiguity in any of the lists I wrote up, but I guess when you screw up an order to a steel supplier and get the quantity mixed up with the length, that can be a pretty expensive mistake.

In Spanish the @ is used, mainly in text chat, as both an "a" and an "o" at the same time. Saves time when you want to address both males and females: "amig@s" instead of "amigos y amigas"

Smart, maybe can displace the harder to read latinx term.

as an accountant, i feel that cringe feeling whenever someone says their email john at the rate of gmail.com lol.....

The @ is sometimes used like "apples, 50¢ @" in which it is read as "each" rather than "at". This may have faded out once email addresses popularized it as "at", but it always made more sense to me since @ looks like an "ea" ligature.

Ah, I wasn’t aware of this, but it makes a lot of sense! It even looks like it could be a ligature of “eac”, and it’s very natural to imagine a cursive each being abbreviated first to @h and eventually to just @ by a busy clerk.

German uses à for this purpose, there is probably a shared history behind that.

Its html code is "@".

I always thought it's "amper's and" for that reason, and "amper" must mean "Kaufmann".

as opposed to the appealing German scharfes (ß)

Don’t believe them! ß is not sharp! Do you see any sharp edges there? Me neither! It’s as blunt it can get!

The curve is a convex edge. The shape provides lower surface area at the point of impact, increasing the surface pressure with the same impact force compared to a straight edge.

the baseline looks close to being a "sharp edge"...

really though, with the "New Book called "What if? 2" by the XKCD creator, can I get him to sign it? given the previous books suggestion: a cure for the common cold, "If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?"? https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=30139925

German class teacher told us once that this particular letter can be called scharfes S and eszett

Was kinda amusing when the "less involved" classmates were trying to read it as B

it's from (serif-like) handwriting really... it's easy to see that given people "describe" the as being scharfes of the entity `ß`

In french it is called esperluette.

There are different theories. The most convincing one is it came from the occitan language where "es per lo et" would translate litteraly in english to "it is for the and". Sounds similar to the origin of ampersand.

The German Wikipedia [1] has a slightly different variation than MW and you which makes a lot of sense to me:

The letters which were also words were prefixed with "per se" (it was not bracketed like MW says "I per se I" - why?).

So, when schoolchildren recited the alphabet, they'd say

"per se A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, per se I, ...".

Now, the "&" was at the time considered the last letter, and it was introduced by "and", as the last item of a list often is ("Peter, Paul and Mary"), thus the schoolchildren would end

"... W, X, Y, Z, and per se &." [1]

French, similarly, ended in "X, Y, Z, et per lui &."

That seems to me a very plausible theory for ampersand and esperluette.

Note, however, that the English Wikipedia mirrors the "A per se A" explanation from MW.

[1] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Et-Zeichen#Englische_und_franz...

I went down that rabbit hole too prior to seeing your comment and I was pretty surprised that the french meaning seems to have evolved exactly the same way the english one did


> « et, per se, et » (« et, en soi, 'et' ») pronounced « ète-per sé-ète », would have transformed into « et, per lui, et »

I find the Occitan etymology more convincing, considering esperluette still sounds almost like perfect Occitan with a meaning that makes complete sense, and the phonemic changes from Gallo-Latin et, per se, et don't seem regular.

Yes this is one of the other theory which can have some weight. The reality is it could be a combination of the two. People from northern areas of what is now France would have initially using et, per se, et then et, per lui, et while the occitan speaking part would have used et, per lo, et and a merge would have taken place somewhere more recently.

That's interesting that such a similar process happened so far apart. In German it's simply known as "Und-Zeichen" ("and-symbol") or "Kaufmännisches Und" ("mercantile and" or "business and") due to its popularity in company names.

I really doubt Occitan Language has anything to do with that.

This is a very old symbol and occitan was the primary language used by more than a third of what is known as France until very recently.

Ah sorry I got confused with "Basque" Language.

Obligatory Mitchell & Webb Ampersand origin theory..


In many typefaces the "et" in "&" is still completely legible.

It's common to see "&c." in older texts instead of "etc."

> It's common to see "&c." in older texts instead of "etc."

Guessing this was to save on ink or something?

Manuscripts were very large and time-consuming to create. Ligatures save time, space, and materials (paper and ink).

Most of these conventions carried over into the printing age and were slowly phased out.

more of an aesthetic choice I'd say, as with a lot of typography (after legibility)

Some of those typefaces can be seen in the images here:


You can also see it in HN comments. For example:


I’ve consistently used &c. (almost always in italics, too, as was the custom due to the convention of italics for foreign language words, but especially also because it yields even prettier results in many fonts—the “et” is more likely to come through in italics¹) for 8½ years now.² I’ve only been asked about it twice (once “what is that?” and once “I think you made a typo”), though I’ve probably confused or surprised more people than that, and there have been a few occasions over the years when I’ve deliberately used “et cetera” instead.

I also type typographic punctuation (curly quotes, em dashes in sentences, en dashes in ranges and such, narrow no-break spaces, true hyphens and minus signs in some contexts, &c.) completely naturally with my Compose key. If you get ' from me, I meant ' rather than ‘ or ’. Or I was using my phone. I should see about adding some of this stuff to wvkbd.

It’s all good fun. :-) (And that emoticon would have been U+1F642 SLIGHTLY SMILING FACE, entered with `Compose : )`, but I went ASCII since HN strips emoji.)

I also deliberately adopted an idiosyncratic written form for my ampersands maybe five years ago, based on the 8-with-legs shape, where I omit the bottom right leg, starting halfway between the ending line and the 8 intersection. I decided this was prettier and slightly more legible.

I… I suspect I might have become a typography snob somewhere along the way. I’m just going to disguise it with the excuse that I like to be correct.


¹ For example, find the &c. in https://chrismorgan.info/blog/rust-fizzbuzz/, and compare its beautiful curly etty ampersand with the boring non-italic ampersand in the same font in “What’s the deal with this &str”. (I’m assuming the use of the serif Equity font that I load on the page.)

² Judging by my HN comments, I switched some time between January 29, 2014 (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7141477 is my last comment where I wrote “etc.”) and February 12, 2014 (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7223153 is my first comment where I wrote “&c.”).

³ `Compose h r`, horizontal rule like the HTML tag. For other characters, ½ was `Compose 1 2` (possibly the only stock mapping used in this comment), and the superscript numbers for footnotes are `Compose ^ 1` and so forth.

Where I'm coming from Amper is a river and Sand has the same meaning as in English. So without the context, Ampersand is the sand you find at Ampers river bank... When I first read this name I took it for some mystic code name :)

This is great: there is actually a way to refer to "@" – at per se!

(In German, it is often referred to as "Klammeraffe". My attempts at conversely referring to the ampersand as "Brezelzeichen" didn't show wide success. The at-ligature is also sometimes referred to as "Internet a" or "email a" – as in "em@il", i.e., "ematil" :-) )

I've definitely heard it referred to as "ampersat" though from OP sounds like it ought to be "atpersat."

The other name I'm familiar with is "Commercial At."

"Commercial At" is a thing in German, too (translating the "at", Kaufmannsund.)

However, it refers to only one of the common uses. The most prominent use has been in lists, like, "3 socks @ 2 denarii" (meaning, three socks at 2 denarii each), &c…

BTW, speaking of lists, there's another, now lost ligature for "i"+"t", often used as an abbreviation for "item", which works just the same, an open circle denoting the "t".

I recommend listening to the told version by the Milk Carton Kids (Live From Lincoln Theatre (2014)), and the rest of the album. https://youtu.be/gL8eBrhVTJ4?t=2517 Interesting this article is from 2020, whereas the wikipedia article on the ampersand lists merriam-webster videos from 2014 and 2015 as sources.

If you find the history of Ampersand interesting, you may be a word nerd and may qualify for listening to some podcasts on the etymology like these two that are personal favorites.

https://historyofenglishpodcast.com/ A fascinating exploration of the origin and evolution of English. It includes a lot of episodes that cover topics like the Ampersand.

http://www.lexitecture.com/ The premise is simple: in each episode, two friends (Ryan, a Canadian, and Amy, a Scot) get together armed with a new chosen word, and then they regale each other (and you!) with whatever bits of fascinating trivia they’ve been able to uncover about the origins and histories of those words, tracing through the ages to decipher just how each word got from its beginnings to its current use.

I think a point missing in this is that written latin had contractions. In carved form, word.spacing.was.optional.as.well with dot as a separator, and so the use of the contractions w.mk.for.some.odd.interp.o.meaning (would make for some odd interpretations of meaning)

So I per se and A per se typographically would have been important because I might be standing for I. for Imperator or some other contextual meaning. Because they hadn't invented double space after dot == next sentence and barely invented sentence punctuation, you needed per se to distinguish single letters as contractions from their use as words.

I think -I stress this is only my opinion.

The fact of it being a ligature also explains the other common drawing of it, with the backwards three with a line through it. You can see how it loosely has the same characters E and T.

I love learning more about the ampersand, for obvious reasons.

I've used this unixname for a long time and it's always immensely satisfying when people realize it's just my real name.

This fascinated me and it takes me back to one of my first webpages, where I collected tidbits about another ligature, "@" (which is a ligature of "a" and "d"). The Wayback Machine has a copy (thank you!): https://web.archive.org/web/19981202002949/www.student.nada....

Dutch has a digraph "ij" that's written as one letter like a "y" with an umlaut.


>IJ (lowercase ij; Dutch pronunciation: [ɛi] (listen)) is a digraph of the letters i and j. Occurring in the Dutch language, it is sometimes considered a ligature, or a letter in itself. In most fonts that have a separate character for ij, the two composing parts are not connected but are separate glyphs, which are sometimes slightly kerned.

>An ij in written Dutch usually represents the diphthong [ɛi]. In standard Dutch and most Dutch dialects, there are two possible spellings for the diphthong [ɛi]: ij and ei. That causes confusion for school children, who need to learn which words to write with ei and which with ij. To distinguish between the two, the ij is referred to as the lange ij ("long ij"), the ei as korte ei ("short ei") or simply E – I. In certain Dutch dialects (notably West Flemish and Zeelandic) and the Dutch Low Saxon dialects of Low German, a difference in the pronunciation of ei and ij is maintained. Whether it is pronounced identically to ei or not, the pronunciation of ij is often perceived as being difficult by people who do not have either sound in their native language.

The body of water "IJ" by Amsterdam is spelled with that single letter, so when written as a digraph, both the I and the J are capitalized.


>The IJ (Dutch: [ɛi̯] (listen); sometimes shown on old maps as Y or Ye) is a body of water, formerly a bay, in the Dutch province of North Holland. It is known for being Amsterdam's waterfront.


>The name IJ is derived from the West Frisian word ie, alternatively spelled ije, meaning water and cognate with the English word ea.[1] The name consists of the digraph ij which is capitalized as IJ.

I recently saw a commercial van drive by with the name of the company spelled out in widely spaced upper case letters, but the IJ in the name were kerned closely together because they were considered one letter.

It was kerned that way on purpose, so it didn't qualify for submission to the wonderful web site "Fuck Yeah Keming":


In Afrikaans, the Dutch ij was replaced by y.

Spanish has the digraph CH, depending on region perhaps? I wonder if that was ever a ligature as well?

Fond memories of trying to draw an ampersand back in college when my exams required me to write c code with a pencil on paper. I think I ended up making them backwards.

Side amusing note -- the story brought up in my memory my difficulty in figuring it out in Unix usage years ago.

Without anyone to show me or really having any useful manual on what it's purpose was, I kept on trying:

"man &"

to find out its purpose, usage -- "man" being the tool that I turned to for explaining to myself anything. Little did I know there are commands/characters that operate outside of the manual-explainable set.

Funnily, this never got me anywhere.

Interestingly, the OED's etymology suggests that "ampersand" is a corruption of "a per se and" instead of "and per se and."

1777 H. L. Thrale Diary Aug.–Sept. in Thraliana (1942) I. 145 The Letter commonly called Ipse and and ampuse and viz &. is a corruption of a per se and [sic]: spoken very quick.

given the eventual enunciation of the word it’s more likely that the first word was ‘and’ or at least contained the n/m consonant. during a contraction between ‘a’ and ‘p’ an extra/intermediate consonant is barely needed. that is to say that ‘amp’ is more likely to come out of ‘and p’ than ‘a p’

I'm on about episode 108 of the podcast "The History of English" https://historyofenglishpodcast.com, which taught me about ampersand's origins. I highly recommend the podcast!

I've seen this several times, but I've never seen anything describing how or why & was included in the alphabet when it is clearly(?) not a letter. And what caused it to be dropped?

Around 300 BC, S and Z were removed — and G added:


I hate ligatures, but how one earth is & derived from et?

In some typefaces it becomes more obvious - see the first graphic on this page for a few examples that more closely resemble an 'et' ligature: https://creativepro.com/ampersand-history-usage/

bad cursive?

So does the Alphabet song end "X, Y, &, Z"?

My wife says it’s the S that went to France and came back fancy. Pretty much destroyed my attempt to sound authoritative after reading that article.

In polish the name is borrowed straight from Latin, et

I imagine it fell out of use as a letter because it's a vowel-consonant ligature. Those seem weird, e.g. `S&` instead of `SET`?

I didn't know what it was called when I was a kid, so referred to it as "the baby playing with its feet".

Every time I see another person hand write an ampersand, I smile and nod. One of us.

The article seems confused on the meaning of "per se". It specifically says the phrase is used to refer to the symbol as a letter and not the word, but then goes on to describe it as if they are talking about the word. Someone should rewrite the article to make it clearer.

It's called "arroba" in Spanish, an old measure of weight.

Number 2 article on HackerNews. I hate the Future sometimes.

in HTML, `&`

Also explains how "et al." came about

How so? Where is that?

Between sea & l&

Is rocks & s&

that sounds totally made up!


You can tell it's neat because of the way it is.

and also because of my helpful comment.

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