“Ampersand”, as a word, is a mondegreen. A mondegreen is a word, which comes from a mistaken pronunciation.
According to the records, it was part of an old Roman system of shorthand signs, its first recorded use being in Pompeian graffiti in the 1st century CE. It comes from the Latin word “Et”, meaning “and”. It is sometimes confused with Tironian “et”, which is similar to the number “7” (and “&” and “7” are on the same key on a keyboard now), or more like a reversed capital “gamma”. The Tironian Notes was a different form of shorthand.
In the early 19th century, alphabets that can be used as a standalone word were preceded by “per se”, while teaching to students. “Per se” is a Latin phrase, meaning “by itself”. “&” was the 27th letter after “Z”. Besides the above mentioned reason, it would also sound confusing if students recited “…X, Y, Z, &”. So they’d say “…X, Y, Z, and per se &”. Over time, with mishearing and mistaken pronunciations, “and per se and” was slurred together into “ampersand”.
The root of the ampersand being “et” is evident in some font types. Talking about font types, the ampersand holds a special place for font designers. They can be as creative as they wish to with making a logogram of “et” for the ampersand. A logogram is a sign or character representing a word or phrase, and the ampersand is one. It is especially prominent in display types the large, eye-catching types used in headlines, signage, advertisements, etc.
The ampersand also has a unique place in the corporate world, where it symbolises a close and permanent partnership, for example, AT&T, Barnes & Noble, etc. It is also sometimes used in publications to show close collaboration between authors, as opposed to “and”, which says that the authors did contribute individually, but might not have collaborated or consulted each other.
In the world of technology, it is used in various programming languages, for example as the “address” operator in C and “reference” operator in C++ programming languages, etc. A double ampersand – “&&” – is also used for “and” operator.
The phrase “et cetera”, meaning and “so forth”, commonly abbreviated as “etc.” is also sometimes written as “&c”, as “&” replaces “et”. The ampersand is also used in a listed item to signify that the “&” is part of the name of the item, as opposed to “and”, which acts as a separator.
I remember reading and using the Tironian “et” somewhere, just can’t remember when and where. I also remember getting confused between a stylised “s” and the “&” as a kid. What about you?