Here in Ontario we’re celebrating Family Day – you and your kids get to stay home from work and school to spend quality time together. In the dead of winter. When it’s too cold to go outside because your extremities might fall off, so you’re stuck in the house together, enjoying your quality time and wondering if you might have been better off just going to work…
Anyway, for some reason this got me thinking about ligatures. No, not the kind of ligature that you might use to strangle someone – jeez, what kind of monster do you take me for? I’m talking about the sort of ligature that joins two letters together into one mutant letter (not to be confused with typographical ligatures, which are more of an issue for graphic designers).
Now, while there are many ligatures out there, in English, ligatures have more or less gone the way of the dodo bird. They are seen as archaic and their use is generally frowned upon. However, there are a few exceptions. Let’s look at the top three: Æ/æ, Œ/œ and &.
The ligature Æ/æ (also known as Ash) is used in the spelling of Old English words, assuming the context is also Old English. So, for example:
- Ælfred knew the Black Death had arrived when first he spied the boil on his neck. Wearily, he reached for the bottle of æther.
If the context is modern, then you use the modern spelling of the words, as follows:
- Alfred knew he was screwed as soon as he saw the lump on his neck. With a sigh, he reached for the ether he’d acquired on the Black Market.
In English, the ligature Œ/œ is used when spelling certain French words, but only in a French context. For example:
- Today we learned that French song, the one with the line: l’œuf est dans le nid. I can’t remember its name.
Now, the best ligature is also the most commonly used one, and that is the ampersand (&). These days, the ampersand is used more like punctuation, but it originated in Latin and was a combination of the letters e and t (in Latin et means and). Over time, it evolved into the symbol we use today. In fact, in the 1800s it was the last letter of the English alphabet – when recited out loud, school children would say “x, y, z and, per se and.” That’s how the & ligature got its modern name. If you say those last four words quickly, you end up with ampersand.
There are not any hard and fast rules about using ampersands in modern English. They are most commonly used in titles and company names (Evil & Dead, Brains & More Brains, A Brief History of Blood & Blood Types, etc.), but ampersands have also grown in popularity amongst those who text and tweet (why type three letters when one will suffice?). Maybe there should be a petition to return the ampersand to its rightful place in our alphabet…
So there you have it – ligatures in a nutshell. If you would like to learn more about the history of the ampersand, here are a couple of links for you: