Ampersand, the most attractive character in the font book

It is amazing how time flies! QuickTime is coming up to its 20th birthday; it was launched on December 2nd 1991 for both System 6 and System 7. Back in 1991 I was faced with the task of choosing my degree dissertation topic, and QuickTime really caught my attention – so much so that I wrote about QuickTime’s probable impact on the media industries and produced the paper as an interactive HyperCard stack. This caught MacUser’s attention, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. But I never quite forgot my previous topic, the one I almost did: the ampersand. My obsession with typography was already well-rooted by then, and the origins and development of this peculiar character had fascinated me for some time. Unlike any other character in any Latin-based alphabet, this is a symbol for a specific whole word, the word ‘and’.

Apparently some people believe the ampersand gets its name from the writings of André-Marie Ampére, the French physicist who discovered electromagnetism in the early 19th century. He is said to have used the ampersand so much that it was called “Ampere’s and”… but actually that’s a load of tosh. The word ‘ampersand’ is taken from the original descriptive term for the character; “and per se and”, which expands and translates to “and, the symbol which by itself is and”. This looping self-referencing starts to get quite Alice Through The Looking Glass; like Humpty Dumpty, the name really does mean the shape it is. (We’ll not go into the whole White Knight thing about the difference between the name, what the name is called, and what it is; that way lies endless introspection.)

The origins of the ampersand lie in the first century, just under 2050 years ago. I find it quite amazing that we know not only who created this character – Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s scribe – but also the year it appeared – 63BC. Tiro wanted to simplify the task of writing, so he worked on an early form of shorthand, one designed with the needs of scribes in mind. The Latin for ‘and’ is ‘et’, and Tiro came up with a ligature-like contraction of the two letters that could be written without lifting the pen from the paper’s surface. The shape Marcus Tiro made was created for speed and convenience. It represented the e and t quite clearly, but still helped streamline the process of writing. And when we’re talking about the process of using quill-style pens on vellum or parchment, that’s no small matter.

This Tironian Notes shorthand, as it became known, was relatively formal and consisted of thousands of different special characters, but the ampersand was widely embraced in all forms of written work. Through into the middle ages many hundreds of similar calligraphic ligature abbreviations were developed. When Gutenberg gave us movable type for printing, many of these special character combinations and alternate shapes for use in certain conditions were preserved. After all, printed type was really seen as nothing more than a way of automating the same production of written manuscripts, a way to speed up the production of pages. It took another three centuries and the genius of John Baskerville before the design of type for print was seen as something significantly more than the recreation of letters written by hand. In the mid-1700s Baskerville created type designs that were dramatically clearer and sharper than any before, so much so that it was said (probably by ancestors of tabloid journalists) that reading it ‘would damage the eyes’. He then reinvented the science of ink and paper manufacturing as it wasn’t doing his type justice.

Through all this time the ampersand persisted and was developed. For a long time it remained relatively clearly based on the Latin et, albeit with points given for style and interpretation. Printed type brought a clear division of lettering styles; the upright Roman designs, and the cursive or italic. The more handwritten styles of type, the italics, tended to keep the more obviously et-like characteristics, while the upright forms became more rationalised. It is still possible to see the vestigial remnants of the e and t in most ampersands if you know what to look for, but in some cases it is like comparing a Bugatti Veyron with a horse-drawn buggy – the link has become pretty tenuous.

This development of a ligature into a standalone character happens from time to time. A more recent example is our letter W, which came from the merging of two Vs or Us – yes, the name is that literal – around the 14th century. There are many other examples of typographic evolution in the Latin-based alphabets of European languages, although English has relatively few special letters compared to, say, Norwegian, Russian or German.

The actual meaning of the ampersand is, well, subtly different from just another way of saying “and”. Yes, that is the base meaning of course, but it should generally never be used in normal written texts. It is now used mainly in display typesetting, for example in company names; Baskins & Robbins, M&S, and so on. You’ll also see it used in film credits to indicate when writers specifically worked collaboratively together; this is a formal use of the ampersand as set out by the Writers Guild of America.

It is a shame the ampersand isn’t used more widely, as its looping swash shapes as found in many typefaces make it the most elegant and extravagant character around. Just take a look at the idiosyncracies in the ampersand designs in Cochin, for example, the strong tradition preserved in the italic forms of Hoefler Text, Minion Pro or Berthold Garamond, or the sheer brash power of Elephant, the heavier weights of Bodoni, or the woodcut extremes of Blackoak. Many older designers will remember U&lc (Upper & lower case) magazine, with its powerful logo drawn by Herb Lubalin in the mid-1970s. (So powerful, in fact, that it apparently made designing U&lc covers very difficult as it tended to dominate the page completely.) Sadly, this is no longer published, and any copies you may have stashed away will be pretty yellow by now, but you can revisit the glories of that publication in the book U&lc: Influencing Design and Typography, from http://amzn.to/upperandlowercase.

Most of the really eye-catching shapes are found in the italic styles of a font family. Don’t forget, however, to compare these with the upright alternatives to see how the designer handles (or ignores) the difference. There are so many individual variations in the ampersand design that it is perhaps a little daft to try and categorise them, but nevertheless – there seem to be three main approaches found in the majority of font designs: those that hark back strongly to the original lowercase e and t roots, those that develop the more evolved ‘figure of eight’ loop construction, and those that go down the ‘E with a stroke’ path that is often used in handwriting. These are all connected, so you’ll find examples that fit into more than one of these categories. There are also a few that use a looped plus sign shape as their base, but those aren’t that common.

I do have a soft spot for the capital Q in Gill’s Perpetua Italic, with it’s casually elegant tail, but the ampersand is definitely my favourite character and it has been for as long as I can remember. I don’t regret switching to QuickTime as my topic twenty years ago, but maybe I should take time to revive the ampersand subject properly. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for the chance to show it off in design projects. Using an ampersand prominently is something you have to do when the right opportunity comes up; you really shouldn’t try to force it. But while you wait, take a look at some of these examples and see which catches your eye, and look through your own font collection to see what treasures you can find. You never know, you may end up seduced by this character’s curves too.

Leave a Reply