The Ampersand and its Shady Past

Corruption in our Alphabet: The 27th Letter

The symbol “&” is a ligature of the Latin “et” which means “and”. The character is known as an ampersand — a favorite of graphic designers. Designer Herb Lubalin made the icon an… icon:

How did the word come about? I thought it must have a nice, neat Latin etymology. Well it does have a source, but it’s not so neat.

It all begins with the Little Folks learning their ABCs. In the 1830s the alphabet started incorporating the symbol “&” as the 27th letter. From the Dixie Primer for the Little Folks:

Reciting the end of the alphabet would be confusing if it were “X, Y, Z, and.” To clear it up we made it worse by including a bit of Latin. The chant went like this:

“X, Y, Z, and per se and.”

“Per se” is Latin for “by itself”. So the phrase is deciphered as “X, Y, Z, and, on it’s own, the symbol &”. Through routine repetition the Little Folks slurred the phrase “and per se and” into “ampersand”. And it stuck. And it turns out that the etymology is all American.

When a word comes about from a mistaken pronunciation, it’s called a mondegreen. They are often found in poems and lyrics and something repeated. Which brings us back to school and the Little Folks ending the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liver tea and just us for all.”