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The History of the Ampersand & Other Ligatures

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Symbols 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 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 WikipediaEmoticons

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; :+-+) becomes ☺, ❤ becomes ♥; for more, see the attached images.

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 it?  And a hundred years from now, teenagers will be surprised how old ☺ is.  They might even wonder what a computer keyboard with individual keys looked like.

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About Trinity

A melancholic pragmatist with a wide streak of mischief and an active imagination that turns into novels.

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