In all the excitement about the origin of the ampersand and its various visual forms, I ran out of time to discuss the etymology of its name. This short entry is here to address that omission.
From its ignoble beginnings a century after Tiro’s scholarly et, the ampersand assumed its now-familiar ‘&’ form with remarkable speed even as the Tironian et stayed rigidly immutable.
The symbol’s visual development is perhaps best documented in a formidable piece of typographical detective work carried out by one Jan Tschichold, a graphic designer born in Leipzig in 1902. Famed as an iconoclastic rule-maker and breaker, Tschichold swung from extreme to extreme in a career which rewrote the rules of book design and typography. His 1928 manifesto Die neue Typographie called for the abandonment of traditional rules of typesetting in favour of rigorous Modernism. Then, arrested by the Nazis in 1933 as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’, Tschichold reacted strongly to his ill-treatment at the hands of the Third Reich and repudiated his earlier work, seeing ‘fascist’ elements in the strictures of Modernism. In the process, he earned the ire of his contemporaries as a betrayer of his own principles. Despite this, his work remains influential even today.
In contrast to some of the other symbols explored here, the ampersand seems at first sight to be entirely unexceptional. Another of those things the Romans did for us, the symbol started life as the Latin word et, for ‘and’, and its meaning has stayed true to its origins since then. Even the word ‘ampersand’ itself manages to quietly hint at the character’s meaning, unlike, say, the conspicuously opaque naming of the pilcrow or octothorpe. Dependable and ubiquitous, the ampersand is a steady character among a gallery of flamboyant rogues.