How the Leopard Got His Spots

As a child, I remember finding my father’s copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories on the bookshelf, and being absolutely entranced by them. The most bewitching to me were the ones telling of how the alphabet came to be. They seemed just plausible enough, and I was wrapped up in the excitement the characters experienced as they made a carp’s open mouth for the “ah” sound, &c.

Ampersands in 3 typefaces

The ampersand in Clarendon (magenta), Book Antiqua Italic (cyan), and Helvetica Neue (yellow).

There’s something of the same exciting sense of discovery to Keith Houston’s excellent blog, Shady Characters, which tells the (actual) origin stories of familiar punctuation marks. It’s only updated once every couple of weeks, but it’s evident that it’s because of the amount of research that goes into each exhaustively footnoted post. I thought

I pretty much knew that the ampersand (&) came from a ligature of E and t, from the Latin et, but Mr. Houston surprised me with how much can be said about the ampersand’s origins.

Do yourself a favor and start with the introduction. The site is so well-designed that it feels like sitting down with a good book. Before you know it, you’ll be caught up and anxious for the next chapter.

Notice per the FTC: I have not received any payment, in cash or in kind, for the preceding endorsement.

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Filed under Language, Life and Arts

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