Ever since I was young, I have been a voracious reader. That is partially why I have so much trivia to share with this newsletter. But I got my start like pretty much every other English reader – by learning the alphabet. The alphabet is one of those ubiquitous things we take for granted. Sure, there are small differences between English-speaking countries, like Americans ending with “zee” and Canadians saying “zed”. But even the alphabet itself has not been immune to the changes all languages experience.
For example, I daresay many people are familiar with the custom of making places seem old fashioned by calling them things like “Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe”. The ‘y’ in that ‘ye’ is actually a descendant of the Old English letter “thorn“: þ. This letter originally made a “th-” sound.
But a much more recent departure from our alphabet is a character which still gets a lot of use today – the ampersand: &. As I am sure many are aware, the ampersand is used to represent the word “and”. The shape comes from a slurring of the Latin letters ET, meaning “and”. It is a little tricky to visualize that, but imagine a tilted lowercase e with a lowercase t superimposed on it. Some English primer books included this character all the way into the 1900s.
The word “ampersand” itself is a slurring of the phrase “and per se and”. This would have been recited at the end of the alphabet: “…x, y, z, and per se and”. The “per se” was a Latin phrase indicating that the character stood for a full word. For example, if you said “per se I”, you indicated that you meant the word “I” (me, myself), and not just the letter.
There’s a lot of interesting etymology behind the non-alphabet symbols we use nowadays. Perhaps in the future I will do a post on the origin of the pound sign # and the pound sign £.
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