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shameless pleading

Ampersand

Proofreaders, incidentally, pronounce “&” as “et” when reading aloud. Exclamation points are “bang.”

Dear Word Detective: Is this true? It’s on Wikipedia: “Traditionally, in English-speaking schools when reciting the alphabet, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself (“A”, “I”, and, at one point, “O”) was preceded by the Latin expression per se (“by itself”). Also, it was common practice to add at the end of the alphabet the “&” sign as the 27th letter, pronounced and. Thus, the recitation of the alphabet would end in “X, Y, Z and per se and.” This last phrase was routinely slurred to “ampersand” and the term crept into common English usage by around 1837.” — Jeanie.

Is it true? Oh, true, schmoo. What do we mean by “true,” anyway? Actually, when you’re dealing with Wikipedia, you also have to question, as Bill Clinton once so famously noted, what “the meaning of ‘is’ is.” A Wikipedia entry on wombats, for instance, may be 100% accurate on Monday, but by Tuesday morning may sport a new section on “Famous Wombats” that includes Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and John Travolta. Someone ought to write a screenplay in which the content of a user-editable website actually determines reality. Wikitopia! I’d go to that movie as long as Nicholas Gage wasn’t in it. Or John Travolta.

In this case I can say that at the moment you encountered Wikipedia, that golden moment, that shining moment upon a hill, that entry was indeed true. Yay! I would advise against pushing your luck, however. As I’ve noted in the past, every time I have occasion to type the words “according to Wikipedia,” I feel like I’m jumping out of an airplane wearing a parachute I bought on eBay.

However, the Wikipedia entry on “ampersand,” no doubt written in haste before the Idiot Horde broke down the door, left out a few cool details. The “&” sign we know as an “ampersand” originated in Ancient Rome, where scribes in a hurry used a shorthand system of ligatures, in which “&” stood for the Latin word “et,” meaning “and.” There are some modern typefaces where the origin of the symbol as a combination of “e” and “t” is quite clear.

Now I have a question of my own: how do kids learn the English alphabet today? I remember our class standing and singing it to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (based on the French folk song “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”), but there’s probably an app for that now, right? In any case, back in the Jurassic schoolroom, children would stand and recite the alphabet aloud, and tack “and per se and” to the end. Interestingly, the letters “A,” “O” and “I” received similar treatment in some recitations, but “A per se a” achieved a kind of escape velocity from the classroom and became an idiom in its own right. Because “A” is the first letter in the alphabet, in the early 16th century the phrase “A per se a” came to mean “the best of something, a unique person or thing” (“London, thou art of townes A per se,” 1501).

Meanwhile, back at the tail end of the alphabet, someone asked me a while back why Americans call the last letter “Zee,” but to the Brits and a bunch of other foreigners it’s “Zed.” It’s because they hate our freedoms, I guess. Alternatively, it’s because the “Zed” pronunciation comes closer to “Zeta,” the last letter of the Greek alphabet and the source of “z” in the first place. Only Americans among the English-speakers around the world go with “Zee,” and no one knows exactly why. “Zee” was a fairly obscure English dialect pronunciation when Americans adopted it, possibly in analogy to words like “see” and “bee,” possibly in part to emphasize their 18th century break with England. In any case, “Zed’s” goose was cooked for good in the US when Noah Webster declared “Zee” the proper pronunciation in his 1828 dictionary. I’m just glad Webster didn’t take a shine to another name for the last letter popular at the time, which was (I kid you not) “Izzard.”

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