Ampersand: An Enduring Icon

Ampersand: An Enduring Icon

Marco Minzoni Published on 4/19/2024

The Ampersand (&), often referred to as “commercial e,” stands out as one of the most distinctive and fascinating characters in typography. Esteemed by numerous font designers for its expansive scope for creativity, this symbol’s ancient roots are not widely known.

Referred to variably across languages—’and commercial’ in Italian, ‘esperluette’ in French, and ‘Et-Zeichen’ in German—the term ‘ampersand’ was officially adopted into the English language in 1837.

Historically, the ampersand held a place in the English alphabet up until the early 20th century, concluding the sequence with “X, Y, Z, and per-se and,” signifying “X, Y, Z, and the symbol that stands for ‘and’.” The phrase ‘and-per-se-and’ eventually evolved into the contemporary term ‘ampersand.’

Historical Background and Progression

Documenting some Tyrrhenian Annotations.

Though the English later formalized it, the creation of the ampersand traces back to the 1st century B.C., credited to Marcus Tullius Tiro, a Roman who, despite his initial status as a slave and secretary to Cicero, went on to devise the precursor to this symbol. As a liberated individual, Tiro persisted in documenting Cicero’s writings, and by 63 B.C., he had established a shorthand system, known as the Tironian Notes, to facilitate quicker writing.

In ancient Roman script, the ampersand represented the conjunction of “e” and “t” (“et” translating to “and” in Latin), forming a ligature. This practice continued and expanded in New Roman script, introducing various letter combinations. Despite a decline in ligature use transitioning from Latin to Carolingian scripts, the ampersand endured, evolving into a more elaborate form while concealing its origins.

By the late 8th century, the ampersand became a staple for scribes, aiding in maximizing line space in manuscripts. This was particularly advantageous in creating justified text layouts, ensuring uniform line lengths.

Illustrating the evolution: Old Roman Italic Script 79 B.C., New Roman Italic Script 350 A.D., 9th-century Scottish script, Carolingian Minuscule circa 810, Humanistic Script 1453, William Caslon 1728 (London).

Following the introduction of movable type printing in Europe in 1455, the ampersand continued to be a useful tool for printers, applicable to both serif and sans-serif fonts. It streamlined the printing process by substituting longer words with a single character, a practice that has remained largely unchanged since the Carolingian era. The Renaissance brought about the italics version of the ampersand, characterized by more artistic and ornamental designs.

The Ampersand in Modern Typography…

Presently, the ampersand is incorporated into every new typeface design, appearing in every iteration of the Latin alphabet. Its renditions, especially in italics, showcase a variety of styles, maintaining the essential “e” and “t” composition.

This lineage is evident in fonts like Rotis Sans, Trebuchet, and Bebas Neue, which distinctly separate the component letters.

Notable examples include Rotis Sans regular, Trebuchet regular, and Bebas Neue regular.

The Carolingian-style ampersand prevails as the most common, featured across a broad spectrum of fonts, from serifs like Didot, Bodoni, and Bembo to sans serifs such as Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica, and Univers.

Exemplified by Didot roman, Bodoni book, Bembo regular, Akzidenz Grotesk regular, Helvetica Neue regular, and Univers roman.t
First row from left: Baskerville italic, Palatino italic, Adobe Caslon italic. Second row from left: Garamond italic, Sabon Italic, and Monotype Corsiva italic.

Beyond these, the italic ampersands draw inspiration from calligraphy, displaying dynamic curves and elegance, leading to a wide array of imaginative symbols.

Highlighted by Baskerville italic, Palatino italic, Adobe Caslon italic, Garamond italic, Sabon Italic, and Monotype Corsiva italic.

First row from left: Baskerville italic, Palatino italic, Adobe Caslon italic. Second row from left: Garamond italic, Sabon Italic, and Monotype Corsiva italic.

Creatively, Ludovico Degli Arrighi and Robert Granjon, Renaissance figures, along with Robert Slimbach’s 1992 Poetica font, contributed to the diversity of ampersand designs, offering an extensive collection of variations.

The Ampersand in Brand Identities!

The ampersand has become a symbolic cornerstone in branding, prominently featured in logos of globally recognized companies, from AT&T’s global emblem to consumer brands like M&M’s (Mars & Murrie Ltd) and Head & Shoulders by Procter & Gamble, as well as the Toni & Guy salon franchise.

Displayed by AT&T, M&M’s, P&G, Head & Shoulders, and Toni & Guy logos.

The Victoria and Albert Museum and & Walsh communications agency exemplify effective ampersand usage in branding, alongside Mondadori Electa’s publishing house mark.

Showcased by Victoria & Albert
Museum, & Walsh, and Mondadori Electa logos.

In fashion, the ampersand features prominently within high-end and fast fashion brands alike, including Dolce & Gabbana, & Other Stories, H&M, and Pull&Bear.

Represented by Dolce & Gabbana, & Other Stories, Pull & Bear, and H&M.

The enduring appeal of the ampersand in typography and design underscores its historical significance and contemporary relevance. Originally a space-saving shorthand, it has evolved into an iconic element of visual communication, omnipresent across various sectors and media forms.