The ampersand symbol we know first appeared in some graffiti on a Pompeian wall. It was around the first century AD, according to the New Yorker. However, it wasn’t called an ampersand at the time. It was just a ligature of the cursive letters “E” and “T” forming the Latin word et, which means “and.” (This is why “etc.” is sometimes written “&c.”)
At first, & had competition for use, as shorthand et—the “Tironian et” —was created several hundred years before as part of Cicero’s secretary, Tiro’s, extensive shorthand system, the notae Tironianae. But although it persisted into the Middle Ages, eventually the entire notae Tironianae fell out of use, leaving & to evolve and spread along with the language.
History of the Ampersand Symbol
By the early nineteenth century, & was the 27th letter of the alphabet, coming right after Z, without a title yet. You would still read it as just “and,” which made reciting the end of the alphabet a little confusing; “X, Y, Z and-and.” Kids started inserting the phrase “and per se and” to distinguish it and over time, it all blended and sounded more and more like “ampersand.” The mondegreen name for the centuries-old symbol first appeared in the dictionary in 1837.
In modern times, the ampersand is not a letter of the alphabet. Its sole use is as an abbreviation for and, most often in informal writing, news headlines, and online publications in which space is an issue. It is accepted and mandated in APA Style academic writing for the references list and parenthetical in-text citations, though most other academic styles do not use it.
Originally posted 7/2/2015 and happily updated 10/25/2017. Thanks for reading!