Aesthetics, Culture

Ampersand in the Key of Beauty

Ampersands come in an astounding variety. Goldenflashes21 at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA

In 1953 a German typographer, Jan Tschichold, published his study, The ampersand: its origin and development, in which he tracked that typographical device back to Pompeii. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, preserving the earliest extant example in some wall graffiti. That still doesn’t tell us how much earlier the mark was actually scrawled before the volcano blew – ten years, two months, five seconds? And although others have credited Marcus Tullius Tiro, secretary to Cicero, with inventing the ampersand in about 63 BC, the Wikipedia identifies the form he used as his own stenographic shorthand rather than the later Roman cursive thought to have descended from that bit of Pompeii scribbling.

Ampersand in Trebuchet font, said to be very close to the original “et” written in Roman cursive.

The symbol we know today comes from the ligature of “e” and “t,” which forms the Latin word et meaning “and.” Tiro’s version was similar in appearance to the numeral 7, with two perpendicular straight lines joined at a corner. Even if his was distinct from the symbol we know today, it appears to have come about from a similar process of combining the “e” and “t” strokes. The word “ampersand,” however, was apparently coined in the 19th century from a slurred pronunciation of the words “and per se and.” Tacked on at the end of the alphabet, the ampersand was considered for a time the 27th letter, so that when children recited the alphabet they would say, “. . .X, Y, Z and per se And.” (The first “and” is the sentence conjunction, per se is Latin for “by itself,” and the last “and” signifies the name of the letter.)

I have always loved this symbol, especially the ones that look most like curved E’s. I used to practice making them, trying to decide on my favorite style for cursive writing. In everyday script, people often write the ampersand like this.

On the other hand, I have always savored these elegant forms even though they are nigh impossible to write without a stylus and a very practiced hand.

William Hogarth, serpentine lines from The Analysis of Beauty.

So, history aside, why has this little symbol so captured the imagination of typographic designers? In The Analysis of Beauty (1753) William Hogarth held forth that the serpentine line is a major element of composition that registers with most people as visually beautiful. The eye feels rested even as it travels through successive points on an undulating line. Such lines do not jerk the eye from side-to-side or up-and-down, neither do they tether the eye for too long on a straight path or a circular one. Nearly every version of the ampersand builds upon a basic structure of curved and straight lines creating something like either an S-shape doubled back on itself or at least a rhythmic variation of circles and straight lines that is easy on the senses. Some ampersands, if you stretched the entirety of their lines out flat, would be pretty long, while others would be relatively short. The ampersand at any rate is never complicated, even when it is complicated, and is perhaps to typography what the haiku is to the Japanese language – objectively limited but endlessly versatile.

Afterthoughts on Ampersands and Other Shapes

My German grandmother taught piano and gave me lessons when I was a young girl. Sometimes she put colored foil stars on the music sheet to mark how well I’d performed the lesson (in fact, she sometimes put stars on my hands for fun, too). But she also marked it up with a red pen. I still remember her handwriting, and the way she would write the ampersand, looping it in a cross shape. She would count the time in part English and part German, “One & der two & der three . . .

It dawned on me the other day why the treble clef has also held a similar appeal to me as the ampersand. It follows Hogarth’s lines of beauty only the curvatures are usually tighter. Similarly, the bass clef bears a resemblance to the nautilus shell, believed by many to comply with ideal proportions of beauty.

A Fibonacci spiral approximates the golden spiral using quarter-circle arcs inscribed in squares derived from the Fibonacci sequence. Graphic via Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Likewise, a little used (nowadays) template called a French curve is beautiful aside from its purely practical value. There are many kinds of French curves and they are used in manual drafting and fashion design. These are handy for making adjustments to necklines and sleeve insets and all sorts of thing requiring adjustment of curvature.

(CC BY-SA 3.0)

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