Am­per­sands and other ev­ery­day sym­bols

Asian Journal - - Editorial -

If you look along the up­per case of the stan­dard type­writer or com­puter key­board, you will see a row of sym­bols that most are fa­mil­iar with. We use them as short cuts all the time, but do you know where they come from?

& Am­per­sand: Once con­sid­ered the 27th let­ter of the al­pha­bet, but the sym­bol it­self, (the name came later) comes from Ro­man times. The Latin word for ‘and’ is ‘et’ but af­ter the Ro­man scribes wrote in cur­sive (a fancy word for hand­writ­ing with the let­ters joined), link­ing the ‘e’ and the ‘ t.’ With sloppy pen­man­ship (pen­per­son­ship) the ‘et’ evolved into ‘&’. In the early 1800s, ‘ and’ was de­scribed as the “and” let­ter. Chil­dren would say x,y, z, and, per se ‘and’ (per se is Latin for ‘by it­self ’). Due to slur­ring the in­di­vid­ual words to­gether, “and per se and” be­came “am­per­sand.” The pri­mary use of the am­pe­sand has pretty much dwin­dled to use on signs like John­son & John­son, Barnes & Noble, Tarr & Feather Bar­ris­ters & Solic­i­tors. & now you know! And here’s one for trivia or your next cock­tail party: a word that comes from a mis­taken pro­nun­ci­a­tion is called a mon­de­green.

@ sign: Ev­ery­body likes short­cuts. Now imag­ine if you’re a me­dieval monk copy­ing manuscripts by hand with carpal tun­nel syn­drome (no Xerox ma­chines here). Here comes the Latin again. The word for ‘ to­ward’ is ‘ ad’, so when the word was writ­ten, the tail of the “d” was swept around to make @. Sim­i­larly, the French may have done it with an ‘e’ to ab­bre­vi­ate ‘ each at’ with ref­er­ence to pric­ing of items: in 1536, in a let­ter by Francesco Lapi, a Floren­tine mer­chant, who used @ to de­note units of wine called am­phorae, which were shipped in large clay jars.*wikipedia e.g. 10 bot­tles @ $1.50. Even­tu­ally it was given star sta­tus when it be­came the main­stay of email ad­dresses@some­where.org

$ Dol­lar sign: The word dol­lar (an An­gli­cised form of “thaler”pro­nounced toller) is the name given to coins first minted in 1519 from lo­cally mined sil­ver in Joachim­sthal in Bo­hemia. The $ sign is first used in North Amer­i­can busi­ness cor­re­spon­dence in the 1770s, and refers to the Span­ish Amer­i­can peso, called the “Span­ish dol­lar” or “piece of eight” in Bri­tish North Amer­ica. The US adopted the cur­rency model in 1792. The dol­lar sign ($) comes from the ab­bre­vi­a­tion “ps” for pe­sos. A study of late eigh­teenth- and early nine­teenth-cen­tury manuscripts shows that the s grad­u­ally came to be writ­ten over the p, de­vel­op­ing into a close equiv­a­lent to the “$” mark.

# oc­tothorpe: (Who knew?) more com­monly called the pound sign or num­ber sign from the ab­bre­vi­a­tion for pound: lb or pound weight. Some claim it was the in­ven­tion of Bell Labs for their touch-tone phone pad. Octo – be­cause there are eight points on the sym­bol and some say a thorpe is small town, oth­ers sug­gest it was named af­ter Olympian run­ner, Jim Thorpe. I like the idea that it was just an in­sid­i­ous way to sur­rep­ti­tiously spread the an­cient game of Tic Tac Toe far and wide.

! Ex­cla­ma­tion mark: A good way to bring a sen­tence to a def­i­nite end, sort of like pound­ing your fist into your other hand. Graph­i­cally like a wall mounted over the stop point pe­riod! One the­ory is that it is Latin for ‘ joy’: io and was writ­ten at the end of sen­tences by me­dieval copy­ists. It meant hur­ray (this blan­kety-blank sen­tence is fi­nally done)! Even­tu­ally the ‘i’ mi­grated above the ‘o’ and took over en­tirely re­duc­ing the ‘o’ to a tiny pe­riod and in­sin­u­at­ing it­self much more promi­nently above. In print­ing par­lance it’s known as a ‘ screamer’ a‘ gasper’ a ‘ slam­mer.’ It’s used in lan­guages us­ing the Latin al­pha­bet, and was adopted into Greek, Rus­sian, Ara­bic, He­brew ( al­though I sub­mit the i and o were re­versed: oi!) Chi­nese, Korean and Ja­panese. It has not turned up in Hindi how­ever.

!Have a great week!

Ray Hud­son

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