In the recent episode about vacation words, we said that you write the abbreviation for “rest and relaxation” with an ampersand—“R&R”—and I thought some of you might want more information about the ampersand because it’s an odd little symbol that used to be part of the alphabet, and it also turns out that its name is something of a mondegreen, a word based on a misunderstand or mishearing.
The History of the Ampersand
Nobody knows who invented the ampersand, according to Keith Houston, who writes the Shady Characters website about punctuation and symbols and has published a book by the same name. The earliest known use of an ampersand is in graffiti on a wall in Pompeii.
The Latin word for “and” is “et,” and the ampersand symbol was originally formed as a blend of those two letters: E and T. Today, when letters are connected like this in typefaces, we call them ligatures. When I think of ligatures, I always think of the A and E you sometimes see connected in words like “encyclopædia.”
I can’t recommend the Shady Characters website to you enough if you’re interested in more history on the ampersand, or really any punctuation mark or symbol. Here’s one delightful line from Keith’s pages on the ampersand:
Similarly, the italic ampersand has become something of a playground for typographers, and many italic ampersands are intricately designed works of art when compared to their conformist roman counterparts.
And it’s true. Play around with typing ampersands in different fonts and then changing the text to italics to see the huge variety in how it’s styled.
The Ampersand Was Once Part of the Alphabet
So how is the name “ampersand” a mondegreen? Well, first you need to know that the ampersand used to be the last “letter” of the alphabet. Children would recite the end of the alphabet as “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” with that last “and” being the ampersand symbol. “Per se” is Latin for “by itself,” so they were essentially saying “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.”
And as an aside, back in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they used a completely different rhyme from what kids today use to learn the alphabet called “Apple Pie ABC.” There were lots of versions, but they all related to a story about the letters eating apple pie. “B bit it. C cut it.” And so on. The ABC song we know today, A, B, C, D, E, F, G … that wasn’t copyrighted until 1835.
How Did It Get the Name ‘Ampersand’
Much like the way people mishear the line in the “Star Spangled Banner” “Oh say, can you see” as “Jose, can you see?”—a mishearing we call a mondegreen—schoolchildren forced to recite Latin at the end of their ABCs, “X, Y, Z, and per se &” heard a lot of different things for that “and per se and” part, including “amperzed” and also something that seemed like a name, “Ann Passy Ann,” just as Sylvia Wright heard the name “Lady Mondegreen” for “laid him on the green.”
The Oxford English Dictionary actually lists three of the other mishearings as early forms of the word: “ampassayand,” “ampussyand,” and “ampusand.” Before that, I believe it was simply called “and” and the symbol wasn’t distinguished from the word by having its own name.
Eventually, sometime in the late 1800s, English seemed to settle on the name “ampersand.”
‘Per Se’: How English Used to Refer to Single Letters Used as Words
At the time, the ampersand wasn’t the only letter that got the “per se” treatment either. According to Merriam-Webster, people would also use the phrase to identify single letters that were being used as words instead of letters.
For example, people would say “I, per se I” to show they meant the word I instead of the letter I. And a note from an 1871 publication called “Notes & Queries” says the letter A was often referred to as “A per se,” and then that phrase came to mean “first-rate” or “excellent” because of A’s position at the beginning of the alphabet. It gives the example of describing a women as “She was a woman A-per-se, alone.”
When to Use an Ampersand
Let’s finish with how to actually use an ampersand. You don’t use it every time you want to represent the word “and.”
Ampersands in Company Names
Although ampersands are thought of as informal, if the ampersand is officially part of a company name, it’s best to use the ampersand instead of writing out the word “and.” For example, you write “Tiffany & Co.,” “Procter & Gamble,” and “AT&T” with ampersands.
In general, you write the company’s name the way it wants it written. However, the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage does say to use the ampersand to replace less common abbreviations for “and” in company names. For example, the creative agency Wieden+Kennedy writes its name with a plus sign for the “and,” but the New York Times style guide says to replace it with an ampersand.
Ampersands in Abbreviations
You also use ampersands with certain abbreviations that everyone seems to agree take an ampersand, such as
- “R&R” for “rest and relaxation”
- “B&B” for “bed and breakfast,”
- “R&B” for “rhythm and blues”
- “Q&A” for “questions and answers”
- “R&D” for “research and development”
If you aren’t sure whether an abbreviation takes an ampersand, you can usually look it up.
Spaces Around Ampersands
In company names with words, like Tiffany & Co., you put a space on both sides of the ampersand, as if it were a word; but in abbreviations, you don’t put a space whether it’s a company name like AT&T or an abbreviation like R&R.
Commas with Ampersands
The Chicago Manual of Style, section 6.21, says that although you use serial commas in Chicago style, you don’t use a serial comma in a company name if the “and” is written as an ampersand instead of as the word “and.”
The serial comma is the comma before the final “and” in a series. The comma before “and” in “red, white, and blue.” So for company names in Chicago style, you’d write, “Smith, Jones, [comma] and Williams” if the word “and” is written out, but “Smith, Jones & Williams [no comma]” if the “and” is written as an ampersand.
Ampersands in Screenwriting
Finally, here’s a cool tidbit about the role the ampersand plays in the screenwriting world. According to the Writers Guild, if two writers are listed in the credits and their names are connected by an ampersand, it means wrote they script as a team. But if two writers are listed and their names are connected by the word “and,” it means they worked on the script separately. Who knew there could be so much meaning packed into one little “and” or “ampersand”?