Our Middle Name

Last month’s posts about the and the ß prompted a flurry of e-mail inquiring about other special favorites in the character set. Matt McInerney guessed correctly that the ampersand is one for which we have special affection, and asked if there was anything else we could say about it. How could we not? Ampersand, after all, is H&Co’s middle name.

Though it feels like a modern appendix to our ancient alphabet, the ampersand is considerably older than many of the letters that we use today. By the time the letter W entered the Latin alphabet in the seventh century, ampersands had enjoyed six hundred years of continuous use; one appears in Pompeiian graffiti, establishing the symbol at least as far back as A.D. 79. One tidy historical account credits Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, with the invention of the ampersand, and while this is likely a simplified retelling, it’s certainly true that Tiro was a tireless user of scribal abbreviations. One surviving construction of the ampersand bears his name, and keen typophiles can occasionally find the “Tironian and” out in the world today.

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it: below, a tour of some ampersands and the thinking behind them, along with an explanation of the storied history of the word “ampersand” itself.


1 — The ampersand in Knockout follows a construction that’s been common to commercial sans serifs since the nineteenth century. At least some of this form’s popularity must come from its elasticity, for variations on this design can be found in almost any proportion. This is certainly what recommended it to Knockout, where the design would have to survive an especially ambitious range of weights and widths: this ampersand works as well in light compressed fonts as it does in ultrabold wide ones.

2Hoefler Titling includes one of my favorite ampersands, a lyrical italic with a palpable “et.” Typefounders as early as Griffo (1499) and Arrighi (1523) used ampersands of this basic shape — and calligraphic forebears date to the fourth century — but it was in the early seventeenth century that the shape flowered into this wonderfully baroque form. The triplet of circles that float along the ‘mean line’ (at the top of the lowercase) is charming in text; I’ve always found that these kinds of ampersands are particularly comfortable alongside roman small caps.

3 — As part of its commitment to being over-the-top, Hoefler Text includes no fewer than seven different ampersands in each of its weights. Along with roman and italic ampersands of more straightforward constructions — each supplied in sizes to match both the lowercase and the small caps — this alternate is included, modeled on a famous ampersand made by William Caslon in 1732.

4Chronicle has distant roots in the early nineteenth century, a time when typefounding was beginning to show the influences of other disciplines, signwriting foremost among them. The unusual ‘ball terminal’ on Chronicle’s ampersand is very much a sign painter’s gesture, though this one was inspired by a more recent sign of a different medium: a former bank on lower Broadway features a similar ampersand, cast in bronze and probably designed in the early twentieth century.

5 — As infrequent as ball terminals are on roman ampersands, they’ve always been common in italics. The ampersand in Archer has the requisite ball on its italic ampersand, but borrows this feature back for many of its roman letterforms, giving many of its roman capitals the esprit of a cursive italic. (Check out Archer’s C, G, and S for some unexpected ball terminals.)

6 — As a typeface based on calligraphic sources, Requiem offers an interpretation of a bonafide written ampersand. This form of ampersand would ultimately become enshrined in type, and would later evolve into the baroque ampersand of Hoefler Titling, above. In its calligraphic dress, this type of ampersand presents an especially thorny challenge for type designers, as it includes one of the few moments in which two thick strokes meet at a right angle.

7 — A different take on the literal “et” appears in the italic for Mercury, where the join between cursive E and constructed t makes for some fierce geometry, reinforcing the themes of the font’s roman and italic. A testament to the permissiveness of the ampersand is how inconspicuous this form is, its overall silhouette sufficiently ‘ampersand-like’ as to pass unnoticed in text.

8Whitney features a contemporary ampersand that first gained popularity on the typewriter. Letters on typewriter hammers took every opportunity to repel ink, and breaking the tiny upper counter of the ampersand provided a clever way to avoid clogging without affecting the character’s recognizability. Whitney’s use of this shape underscores the font’s businesslike overtones, and it serves the design in situations where space doesn’t permit extraneous gestures: Whitney’s weights run to a very dense Black, where the small-cap-sized ampersand couldn’t exist without some degree of simplification.

As for the word “ampersand,” folk etymologies abound. The likeliest account, offered by the OED, is explained by early alphabet primers in which the symbol was listed after X, Y, Z as “&: per se, and.” Meaning “&: in itself, ‘and’”, and inevitably pronounced as “and per se and”, it’s a quick corruption to “ampersand,” and the rest is history. Though I do like one competing explanation offered by a retired signpainter I once met, who insisted that the symbol got its name from its inventor, and was henceforth known to the trade as Amper’s And. This Mr. Amper has never surfaced, nor have any of his contemporaries who lent their names to competing models; I would have liked to see Quick’s And, on which this tale is surely built. —JH


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