Twelve Abandoned Letters, including &

December 19th, 2012

MentalFloss has a cool article about several letters that were at one point in common usage in English, but eventually dropped out.

Two are of interest.

First, apparently & (ampersand) was once a letter, not just a punctuation mark, but the meaning of the letter yielded the significance of the punctuation.


Today we just use it for stylistic purposes (and when we’ve run out of space in a text message or tweet), but the ampersand has had a long and storied history in English, and was actually frequently included as a 27th letter of the alphabet as recently as the 19th century.

In fact, it’s because of its placement in the alphabet that it gets its name. Originally, the character was simply called “and” or sometimes “et” (from the Latin word for and, which the ampersand is usually stylistically meant to resemble). However, when teaching children the alphabet, the & was often placed at the end, after Z, and recited as “and per se and,” meaning “and in and of itself” or “and standing on its own.”

So you’d have “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.” Over time, the last bit morphed into “ampersand,” and it stuck even after we quit teaching it as part of the alphabet.

I have frequently seen in colonial-era writings the mark &c.

Take for example, Brutus VI:

It is as absurd to say, that the power of Congress is limited by these general expressions, “to provide for the common safety, and general welfare,” as it would be to say, that it would be limited, had the constitution said they should have power to lay taxes, &c. at will and pleasure.

Wiktionary has an interesting etymology of this mark

From an orthographic variant of etc., in which the script of the e and t merged (ligature) to become & and then &.

So & was a merging of e and t, followed by c, means etcetera.


The other dropped letter helps to explain what “Ye olde” means.


Have you ever seen a place that calls itself “ye olde whatever”? As it happens, that’s not a “y”, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Originally, it was an entirely different letter called thorn, which derived from the Old English runic alphabet, Futhark.

Thorn, which was pronounced exactly like the “th” in its name, is actually still around today in Icelandic. We replaced it with “th” over time—thorn fell out of use because Gothic-style scripting made the letters y and thorn look practically identical. And, since French printing presses didn’t have thorn anyway, it just became common to replace it with a y. Hence naming things like, “Ye Olde Magazine of Interesting Facts” (just as an example, of course).

Ah, so that explains that.

Very interesting stuff!

H/T Rachel F.