History Undusted: The History of the Ampersand & Other Ligatures

Emoticons 2.1The ampersand (&) may seem like a modern invention for lazy spellers, or a typesetter’s solution to limited space, or an English teacher’s pet peeve on exams; but it can actually be traced back to the 1st century Romans.  In English, “&” is pronounced “and” rather than its original Latin word “et” (meaning “and”).  Hannah Glasse’s writings show us that “etc.” was, in her time, written as “&c.” which may look strange to our modern sensibilities, but makes perfect sense when you know the origin of the ampersand.

There are many examples of ligature (characters consisting of two or more symbols combined into one) in use today; everyday symbols we use likely have quite a history.  Have you ever wondered about @, #, ©, ¶, or % ?  Or even “?” ?  And no, I’m not cussing.

Many currency symbols are a combination, abbreviation or contraction of words or letters:  The British pound symbol £ derives from the Roman word “Librae;” Libra was the basic Roman unit for weight, derived from the Latin word for “scales,” or “balance.”  “L” was the abbreviation (see, we aren’t the first generation of lazy spellers; but then again, you would be too, if you had to chisel it into stone, or cure hides for scrolls).  The Pound Sterling has quite a pedigree and is worth a read over at Wikipedia.



Credit:  Wikipedia


Believe it or not, the “at” symbol, @, was first used in a religious text:  The Bulgarian translation of the Greek Manasses Chronicle (c. 1345) used it as an abbreviation for “Amen”.  There are several theories as to why it was used in this way; perhaps it was in an effort to save space and ink and hard-won writing surfaces.  In English, the symbol was originally an accounting and invoice abbreviation for “at a rate of”. In fact, it has long been used in financial or commercial contexts in several languages.  The use in email addresses began in 1971, and we all know how it’s used in web page addresses, and increasingly in use in text messages; it is probably the most common ligature of all.

Emoticons 1Our modern language has added Emoticons to the list of ligature symbols; many computers automatically convert certain combinations of symbols into a different one altogether; for example: :+-+) becomes ☺, <+3 becomes ♥; for more, take a gander at the image to the right.

Our language is full of history; those little symbols, punctuation marks that we take for granted, that necessary “@” for connecting to the world… what would we do without them?  And a hundred years from now, teenagers will be surprised how old ☺ is; they might even wonder what a physical computer keyboard with individual keys looked like.

 Originally posted 2 July 2013 on History Undusted



Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Images, Nuts & Bolts, Science & Technology

8 responses to “History Undusted: The History of the Ampersand & Other Ligatures

  1. Yes, having to chisel stone or scrape and cure hides is a great incentive for brevity. 🙂

    The old use of “@” for “amen” is especially intriguing because the squiggles after “@” in the text do not look like they come from the (Cyrillic?) alphabet used earlier in the text. The total space and ink consumed by “@”+squiggles is about as much as “amen” would need in our alphabet, and it seems a fair bet that Cyrillic or Greek would have similar consumption. Maybe there was a different motivation for using “@”+squiggles rather than “amen” in the scribe’s alphabet.

    Could “@”+squiggles be a residue of a code *much* older than 1345? I’m thinking of the time when Christianity was a counterculture that made the acronym ICTHYS from “Jesus Christ, Son of God” (in Greek), drew a sketch of a fish, and hoped the pagan thought police would not reason backward from the sketch to the Greek word for “fish” to the acronym.

  2. I don’t know what the squiggles after the @ in that text actually represented… maybe it was just where they used paper to get their quill working, just like we do. 😉 Maybe it was a secret symbol, like you suggest.

    The early church actually used the symbol of the icthys during the time of Roman persecution of Christians to distinguish friend from foe, and to mark designated meeting areas that were kept secret, or to mark Christian tombs; in that sense, the history of a symbol that you can now find on cars and necklaces has, like the cross, an extremely bloody origin… The next time around, now that the cat’s out of the bag on the fish, so to speak, I guess we’ll need to find another symbol…

  3. Immediately tried one on Facebook. It worked! Let’s see if it works here too. (^^^)

  4. Nope… no sharks were formed in the making of the sign… 😉

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