Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson

Ampersands and other everyday symbols

by Ray Hudson

If you look along the upper case of the standard typewriter or computer keyboard, you will see a row of symbols that most are familiar with. We use them as short cuts all the time, but do you know where they come from?

& Ampersand: Once considered the 27th letter of the alphabet, but the symbol itself, (the name came later) comes from Roman times. The Latin word for ‘and’ is ‘et’ but after the Roman scribes wrote in cursive (a fancy word for handwriting with the letters joined), linking the ‘e’ and the ‘t.’ With sloppy penmanship (penpersonship) the ‘et’ evolved into ‘&’. In the early 1800s, ‘and’ was described as the “and” letter. Children would say x, y, z, and, per se ‘and’ (per se is Latin for ‘by itself’). Due to slurring the individual words together, “and per se and” became “ampersand.” The primary use of the ampesand has pretty much dwindled to use on signs like Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Tarr & Feather Barristers & Solicitors. & now you know!

And here’s one for trivia or your next cocktail party: a word that comes from a mistaken pronunciation is called a mondegreen.

@ sign: Everybody likes shortcuts. Now imagine if you’re a medieval monk copying manuscripts by hand with carpal tunnel syndrome (no Xerox machines here). Here comes the Latin again. The word for ‘toward’ is ‘ad’, so when the word was written, the tail of the “d” was swept around to make @. Similarly, the French may have done it with an ‘e’ to abbreviate ‘each at’ with reference to pricing of items: in 1536, in a letter by Francesco Lapi, a Florentine merchant, who used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae, which were shipped in large clay jars.*wikipedia  e.g. 10 bottles @ $1.50. Eventually it was given star status when it became the mainstay of email addresses@somewhere.org

$ Dollar sign: The word dollar (an Anglicised form of “thaler”pronounced toller) is the name given to coins first minted in 1519 from locally mined silver in Joachimsthal in Bohemia. The $ sign is first used in North American business correspondence in the 1770s, and refers to the Spanish American peso, called the “Spanish dollar” or “piece of eight” in British North America. The US adopted the currency model in 1792. The dollar sign ($) comes from the abbreviation “” for pesos. A study of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century manuscripts shows that the s gradually came to be written over the p, developing into a close equivalent to the “$” mark.

# octothorpe: (Who knew?) more commonly called the pound sign or number sign from the abbreviation for pound: lb or pound weight. Some claim it was the invention of Bell Labs for their touch-tone phone pad. Octo – because there are eight points on the symbol and some say a thorpe is small town, others suggest it was named after Olympian runner, Jim Thorpe. I like the idea that it was just an insidious way to surreptitiously spread the ancient game of Tic Tac Toe far and wide.

! Exclamation mark: A good way to bring a sentence to a definite end, sort of like pounding your fist into your other hand. Graphically like a wall mounted over the stop point period! One theory is that it is Latin for ‘joy’: io and was written at the end of sentences by medieval copyists. It meant hurray (this blankety-blank sentence is finally done)! Eventually the ‘i’ migrated above the ‘o’ and took over entirely reducing the ‘o’ to a tiny period and insinuating itself much more prominently above. In printing parlance it’s known as a ‘screamer’ a ‘gasper’ a ‘slammer.’ It’s used in languages using the Latin alphabet, and was adopted into Greek, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew (although I submit the i and o were reversed: oi!) Chinese, Korean and Japanese. It has not turned up in Hindi however.

!Have a great week!