The 27th letter of the alphabet

And how the Romans are involved again

Of course, there are only 26 letters in the alphabet. But once there were 27. Well 29, but we’ll get to that later.

The additional letter is the ampersand. Today it’s mainly used in company names, like Barnes & Noble, or in abbreviations like R & R.

It’s an unusual little critter. So, where did it come from?

In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive text, so when they wrote et, the Latin word for and, they linked the two letters to form a symbol. Over time, this was adopted into the English language.

The name for this symbol came much later. In the early nineteenth century, school children reciting the alphabet finished with and. They said ‘X, Y, Z and, per se, and.’

Per se is Latin for by itself. So the students were actually singing, ‘X, Y, Z and, by itself, and’. Over the course of a few decades, ‘and per se and’ became ampersand.

But did you know there were once 29 letters?

Old English was first written in the futhorc runic alphabet of the Anglo-Saxons. Christian missionaries later introduced the Latin alphabet, and for a time, the alphabet included letters of both languages.

But two of them fell into disuse.

One was a letter called thorn which represented the ‘th’ sound.

Because the symbol for thorn and the symbol for Y look nearly identical in medieval English blackletter, the two were mistakenly substituted for each other. This is why you will see signs pointing the way to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in mock Tudor villages in England. We didn’t change the actual sound for ‘th’ over the years, just the symbol we used to spell it.

The other letter that was dropped was wynn. It represented the ‘uu sound which became W.

So there you have it. The alphabet, from A to &.

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Colin Falconer
Colin Falconer is a best-selling author known for historical thrillers such as Silk Road, Harem, Fury, and Feathered Serpent. He has published over 30 books, which have been translated into 25 languages, distinguishing him as a prominent figure in historical fiction.

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