The 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.
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.
Our 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