ampersands & ligatures

Some of my calligraphic ampersands and ligatures

The character ‘&’ is called an ampersand. It derives its name from English and Latin: ‘and “per se” and’, in other words ‘and “as it is” and’. The character is a ligature, meaning a fusion of one or more letters, in this instance e and t, that is, Latin for ‘and’.


The famous typographer / book designer Jan Tschichold was so enchanted by the shape of the character that he published a book, Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen, which contained 288 versions of it. It has a rich history, dating back to Roman times, and is clearly a written character. Individual calligraphers’ interpretations of it vary, while the typographic ones seem to have less variation to them. The typefaces Poetica, Waters Titling and Zapfino (designed by Robert Slimbach, Julian Waters and Hermann Zapf, all of them calligraphers) contain alternates of the ampersand, giving it back some of its lost frivolty.


We mostly know it from companies or names of institutions; Victoria & Albert Museum. It can often be substituted for the italic version of it, which may have more life and spirit to it. In the manuscript tradition it was also used in regular text, along with other ligatures, to save space and time (and vellum). Gutenberg’s 42 line Bible uses over 100 characters, many of them are ligatures, something which helped create a more even block of text. Today, the most common ligatures in type are fi and fl, although ffi and ffl are sometimes included in the character set, along with (even more rarely) the fj, which can be used for the Norwegian word fjord, which the English language has adopted. It helps unnecessary clashes (between, for example the top of the f and the dot over the i) and also improves spacing. Obviously ligatures occur most frequently in regular handwriting, and Open Type font technology can help mimic handwriting if the font has many alternates and ligatures included, by automatically vary the alternates used based on which letter precedes or follows.


Below: Some ampersand samples

1) Grafitti from Pompeii, 79 BC

2) Early Roman cursive (reed pen) 131 AD

3) Late Roman cursive, mid 4th cent.

4) Late Roman cursive, ca. 346 AD

5) Late Roman cursive, 344 AD

6) From an m.s. (St. Hilarius) pre 509 AD

7) From an m.s (St. Maximus) 7th cent.

8) From The Book of Kells, 7th cent.

9) From an Anglo-Saxon m.s., 8th cent.

10) Ligatur from a m.s. (St. Hilarius)

11) Anglo-saxon

12) Anglo-saxon

13) Poetica by Robert Slimbach

14) Trajan by Carol Twombly

15) Waters Titling by Julian Waters