Icon 011. Ampersand

Jan 11, 2013 | A Year of Icons, News, Symbolicons

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Like most designers, I love a good ampersand.

And here begins a tangent…

When I was a junior in high school, I had the opportunity to work as a United States Senate Page. For the spring semester of that year, I lived in Washington DC and spent my days delivering bills between Senate offices, handing Senators podiums, and generally being engulfed in both the grandeur and mundanity of life in the Capitol. It was an incredible experience.

One of the things about being a Senate Page that isn’t often discussed (as if being a Senate Page is ever really discussed often) is that we were all expected to go to school while holding down the full-time job of being a Page. We were still high school students, after all. In order to fit time for classes into our schedule, our day started fairly early. If I remember correctly, school was from 6:00am-10:00am.

In any case, and here I enter a sub-tangent, one of my classes was an independent course in art. My main project was drawing a comic book over the course of the semester. At the time I was convinced I was going to be a cartoonist when I “grew up”. So it was only natural when I made the decision to change my handwriting, and started to write completely in capital letters. I wanted to be a comics artist after all. I needed the handwriting to go with one! It’s a trait that has stuck with me to this day. I actually need to focus in order to write lowercase letters; writing in all uppercase comes completely naturally now.

Which brings me somewhat randomly back to my main topic of this post. Ampersands. The ampersand I started to implement in my own handwriting was a weird amalgamation of a “3” and the letter “I”. It wasn’t beautiful. I tried a few other alternatives, but couldn’t quite cut it with any. It’s always been a hard glyph for me to master. And perhaps because of that, I’m constantly aware of ampersands.

Oddly, the ampersand I created for this project is the first ampersand I’ve attempted to create in any medium since my days as a Senate Page. This one is based heavily on a piece of art (a Corten steel ampersand by Vermont artist Kate Pond) that I have hanging on the wall in my living room: http://instagram.com/p/TEm1WhGfxW/.

Inspiration

I was inspired to add an ampersand to my list of icons for this project after I read an article on Mental Floss by M. Asher Cantrell about 12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet. I’ve excerpted the text below:

Today we just use it for stylistic purposes (and when we’ve run out of space in a text message or tweet), but the ampersand has had a long and storied history in English, and was actually frequently included as a 27th letter of the alphabet as recently as the 19th century.

In fact, it’s because of its placement in the alphabet that it gets its name. Originally, the character was simply called “and” or sometimes “et” (from the Latin word for and, which the ampersand is usually stylistically meant to resemble). However, when teaching children the alphabet, the & was often placed at the end, after Z, and recited as “and per se and,” meaning “and in and of itself” or “and standing on its own.”

So you’d have “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.” Over time, the last bit morphed into “ampersand,” and it stuck even after we quit teaching it as part of the alphabet.

I’ve heard a few accountings of the origins of the ampersand, but I like this one the best.

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Background image by Beanbag America, used under a Creative Commons license.

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