Ampersand, meaning ‘and’, is a contraction of the hybrid Latin/English phrase ‘and per se and’, which was first recorded in the 1830s. ‘And per se and’ sounds like gibberish but, according to the OED, it means ‘the character & by itself is and’; it’s a way of highlighting that the symbol stands for the word.

Another slight variant of this origin is that in 19th century schools, & was added to the end of the alphabet. When schoolchildren recited the alphabet, they preceded characters that could stand alone as words (including I and a) with per se, meaning ‘by itself’. As & came at the end of the alphabet, the recitation would finish with ‘x, y, z and per se and’.

The origin of the symbol itself is in a Roman system of shorthand symbols, which can be seen in graffiti in Pompeii. The Latin word for and is et. Blend the two letters together and you get something that looks like &. It’s clearer in some fonts than others; try typing & in Trebuchet MS and see what it looks like.

Interestingly, there was another system of Roman shorthand called Tironian notes, said to have been invented by Cicero’s scribe, Marcus Tullius Tiro. The Tironian symbol for ‘and’ looked more like the number 7 and it was maintained by some medieval scribes. One theory has it that when the first keyboards were laid out, it was decided that & should be the capital version of 7 so that if the typist failed to hit shift and type the &, at least he would get the closest match to the Tironian ‘and’.

Printing and publishing

As Word Stories looked at Caxton and the effect that his printing press had on English last week, I continued in a similar vein this week, by visiting the Oxford University Press Museum. It’s word nerd nirvana, the printing and publishing mother ship. There is a 19th century printing press, an original plate from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and dictionary entry slips handwritten by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aside from being a worldwidIMG_3295e publishing giant with an extensive history, the OUP is important to us language fans because of the
monumental Oxford English Dictionary. The first ever dictionary was written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 but it was subjective and fairly informal and, as language evolves, soon out of date. When the first volume of the OED was published in 1884, it set a new standard for lexicography: it included everything from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, a thorough, detailed, historical record of English.

Of course the going wasn’t always easy. Five years into the proposed ten-year project, the first instalment was published. It covered all the words from a to ant.

James Murray, the editor at the time, refused to cut any corners and was determined to make it an entire, exhaustive study. He spent some 35 years working on the project but, sadly, died before it was completed. He had reached t.IMG_3257

The complete first edition was published in 1928 in ten volumes instead of the predicted four with around 400,000 words altogether. But of course, by now it had been 44 years since the first volume was published, which had become dated and needed revising. Since language is constantly changing, the dictionary needs to be continually edited.

Aside fIMG_3263rom the OED, some great word stories have also come from the OUP and the publishing world. The terms upper case and lower case for capitals and small letters respectively come from printing. The type is organised by letter in a large set of compartments, a case. The capital letters sit in the upper case while the small letters sit in the lower case.

The phrase to get the wrong end of the stick, meaning ‘to misunderstand’, comes from printing too. Printers held a stick and put the type in it, working from right to left. They had to put the letters in backwards as when they were printed, they would come out in reverse. However, if they got the wrong end of the stick, that is if they started placing the words from the left to the right, the text would come out back to front and no one would be able to understand.

While the typesetter ran out of type, or sorts, he couldn’t finish his job and had to wait until the new batch was IMG_3266delivered. Until that time, he was out of sorts, which now means ‘to feel low or irritable’.

One last noteworthy thing that’s on display in the OUP museum is the notice board of favourite words contributed by visitors. I had a painful realisation that even though I love words, I don’t know what my favourite one is. I feel it’s akin to choosing a favourite child. All the same, I think I need one. I ended up contributing superfluous, mostly because mellifluous had already gone, but I’ve thought of hundreds of great words since (monotonous, sojourn, perturb, albeit, fuddy-duddy, zest). So I put it to you reader, what is your favourite word? Pick a good one and I might even write about it.

What did Caxton do for us?

As promised in last week’s post, I’ve been following in the footsteps of the Crystals and have had a go at some English language tourism. I’ve been looking for William Caxton and his printing press, which brings us to the question: what did Caxton ever do for us?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACaxton was born in Kent in around 1422. At 16 years old, he moved to London to set himself up as a merchant and he later moved to Bruges and became a thriving businessman. He frequently travelled around continental Europe, including trips to Cologne where he was introduced to the printing press. Soon after, he set up his own printing presses, first in Bruges and later in London in 1476. He is thought to be the first person to establish a printing press in Britain and the first English printer and retailer of printed books. Caxton’s own translation of ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye’ was also the first book ever to be printed in English.

Aside from being a big name in translation at that time, Caxton’s work had a huge impact on the English language. Before Caxton, people just wrote down words however they sounded to the writer. Given the range of accents and dialects around at the time, it made for a very messy language with lots of comprehension problems. Well Caxton put an end to that. He modernised the spelling system; he removed the Old English letters (like eth and thorn, which we saw in ye), he added punctuation and his spelling preferences became the ones we often still use today.

To give a few specific examples, ever wondered why ghost has a h? It’s because Caxton’s staff were mostly from abroad and didn’t know English well; the Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest has a h so they figured the English word should too. Similarly, the extra u in guess is often attributed to Caxton.Location of Caxton's printing press

The word affair, meaning ‘something one has to do’, first entered English in around 1300 from the French infinitive phrase à faire ‘to do’. But it was originally only a Northern word that was usually spelt afere. It was Caxton who brought it into general use and gave it a French spelling.

So back to English language tourism. The only statue of Caxton in London that we know of is outside the Victoria and Albert museum and David Crystal suspects that the very location of Caxton’s original printing press is a triangular patch of tarmac in front of Westminster Abbey. And here are my photos!


Printer’s Devil

I stumbled across a fantastic word at work that I have to share. It’s devilling.

We also know the noun devil meaning ‘demon’ and that came from the Old English deofol ‘evil spirit’, which originated in Late Latin diabolus, also the source of diabolical (c. 1500).

But the form devilling is altogether more interesting, because in the Scottish law system, devilling refers to the process trainees must go through to become barristers – the equivalent to the English pupillage system. And this makes it even better: the trainee barrister’s mentor is aptly named a devil master.

It seems that the idea came from an earlier phrase the printer’s devil, who was a young apprentice or errand-boy in a printing office and, through the ‘apprentice’ meaning, it came into a law context. So why was a printing office errand-boy a devil?

There are a number of theories out there. Firstly, it could be because the boy would often be covered in ink. Black being a colour associated with the dark arts, devil was deemed an appropriate nick-name.

Another theory suggests that William Caxton, the first English printer and publisher, had an assistant named ‘Deville’ which evolved into devil over time and came to refer to all printers’ assistants.

One potential explanation is that old or broken type was thrown into what was then termed a hellbox. The printer’s devil would be charged with the task of throwing the hellbox’s contents into the furnace for recasting.

A fourth and rather fanciful suggestion is that Johann Gutenberg’s business partner, Johann Fust, sold a number of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French King Louis XI under the pretence that they were hand-written manuscripts. When the king and his officials noticed that the manuscripts were identical, they arrested Fust for witchcraft – the red ink supposedly being blood. He was later freed when the truth came out but many continued to associate printing with devilry and regarded it with suspicion, hence a rather dubious step to the term printer’s devil.

However, my favourite theory by far is that there is a devil who haunts scribes and printing houses called Titivillus. This mischievous demon introduces errors into text and misspells words. He also, in church services, collects idle chat and mispronounced or mumbled words of service to take to Hell. Eventually, the apprentice became s suitable source of blame to replace Titivillus and he was referred to as the printer’s devil instead.

Incidentally, an article on Wikipedia also remarks that ‘Marc Drogin noted in his instructional manual Medieval Calligraphy: Its history and technique (1980) “for the past half-century every edition of The Oxford English Dictionary has listed an incorrect page reference for, of all things, a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus.”’

Well, as I now work in a publishing house, I can say with certainty that the printer’s devil is a reality and he’s been very busy with my articles. I think that’s the only possible explanation.