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Have you ever paid attention to the ampersand? Did you know that it and similarly formed words are called mondegreens?

Newspaper style prefers the use of a full “and” only permitting the use of this mondegreen (oh how titillating is the English language?) in a name such as Fick & Sons or Johnson & Johnson.  The ampersand, disrespected as it is in today’s press, had an important place in the history of the English language.

It was once the 27th part of the alphabet. Its origin is almost as bizarre as the name itself.

The shape of the character (&) predates the word ampersand by more than 1,500 years. In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive, so when they wrote the Latin word et which means “and” they linked the e and t.

Over time the combined letters came to signify the word “and” in English as well. Certain versions of the ampersand, like that in the font Caslon, clearly reveal the origin of the shape.

The word “ampersand” came many years later when “&” was actually part of the English alphabet. In the early 1800s, schoolchildren reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the &.

It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z, and.” Rather, the students said, “and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.” Over time, “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand. When a word comes about from a mistaken pronunciation, it’s called a mondegreen, but more about that in the next blog. 

(The ampersand is also used in an unusual configuration where it appears as “&c” and means etc. The ampersand does double work as the e and t.)

With thanks to blog.dictionary.com

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