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The Alphabet


Not the alphabet you remember? It probably isn’t, but this is the way generations of English and American students recited it through most of the 19th century. Odd as it may seem now, the ampersand—&—was considered the 27th letter of the alphabet. Texts such as M. B. Moore’s 1864 book The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks clearly show “&” rounding out the alphabet, though unaccompanied by a cute picture or pronunciation guide afforded the other letters.

 The word ampersand is the result of student’s haste rather than some archaic pedigree. At the time, it was common when reciting the alphabet to precede letters that were words in their own right such as A and I, with per se (Latin for by itself). Thus children eager to get their recitation over with, slurred and per se & into ampersand. By 1837 the word was in common usage. It was a frivolous coinage for a symbol that can be traced back to first century Pompeii. The symbol was Roman cursive for the Latin et (and) that bound the two letters together in a typographical ligature. The first ampersand looked something like an E with a line through it—similar to a dollar sign. During the Renaissance, more elaborate forms of type were introduced and the ampersand as we know it today was first introduced. It’s not clear why the ampersand—with printed references going back to at least 1737—dropped off the alphabet. Today it sits atop the 7 on our keyboards and requires the indignity of the shift key to move it onto a page.

 So it turns out that there is more to the humble ampersand than one might have originally thought—and that’s the point. We all recognize the ampersand and we know what it means, but we didn’t know much about it. We didn’t even think about it. The ampersand was just a part of the furniture of our daily lives. But consider how many other things in your life you might take for granted. We’re surrounded by symbols, objects, behaviors and people that we’ve grown accustomed to and just don’t think much about. This can cause problems when we say or do something that seems innocent to us but is found offensive to someone else. We apologize and explain we meant no harm, but harm has been done. It’s not uncommon to attend a retirement or farewell gathering and when the honoree’s story is told we lean over to a colleague and whisper, “I didn’t know that.” How much sadder it is to follow that comment with the thought, “I wish I’d known that.” You wish you’d known it because knowing might have changed the way you understood the person or it might have given you a means of developing a deeper and more satisfying relationship.

A healthy sense of curiosity about people and things is the antidote to complacency. It will open your eyes to better ways of doing things, enrich your relationships and enliven your spirit. The next time you see an ampersand look around. Find something you’ve grown accustomed to and then check it out.           —Ebert

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