Various versions of the ampersand. Courtesy of author.

& is for Ampersand

Today we honor the glyph with an incredibly long name that used to shorten an incredibly short word.

Happy National Ampersand Day, everyone! Today we take a moment to honor everyone's favorite ligature-turned-logogram. The ampersand does everything from keeping PB&J together to acting as a logical operator for computer programmers.

The ampersand started showing up around the first century CE as a cursive Latin ligature (two or more characters shoved together to form a glyph). Initially, it represented the Latin conjunction "Et." You can still see the historical origins in some fonts today, for example, in Trebuchet MS. 


Today, English speakers would read an ampersand as the English translation of "et," "and." Some examples include PB&J, R&B, and R&D. In college, I even signed my emails as "&E," because when read aloud, "and-e" sounds like "Andy." The glyph is now considered a logogram, or a character that represents a word. Examples of other logograms might be = for "equals," + for "plus," % for "percent," or $ for "dollar." 

Ampersands also show up in coding. I've written a small series of blogs like this (C is for Cookie, &072; is for Hamburger), and all the titles start the same way, with an ampersand. What's with that? In HTML, an ampersand with a number followed by a ";" is a character reference. In the case of my cookie day blog post, "C" is an HTML reference to the letter "C," giving us the famous Cookie Monster quote, "C is for Cookie." 

Ampersands also show up as logical operators, representing a logical "and." Those allow coders to link to conditions in a test together. For example:
if($x == true && $b==true){//do something}
In this case, both variables x and b must have a boolean value of true for the code inside the brackets to execute. If either variable has a value other than true, the statement will fail, and it will be skipped. 

So, you might be wondering, how does one celebrate National Ampersand Day? I'm not sure, but I'm guessing I'll be spending the day doing some research & development for our site while eating a PB&J sandwich. Maybe I'll have some milk & cookies for dessert.

Related Resources  

  • C is for Cookie,” by Andrew Whitesell, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • &072; is for Hamburger,” by Andrew Whitesell, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives


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