Language Reports

Stories of the Older Type

March 2019

In recent years, technology has drastically changed the way in which we communicate. While it has brought us countless new words, as shown in our last installment of Word Stories, it has also superseded some older methods of communication. Still, for the time being, the printed page survives, and the language of printing and typography is very much alive. This month, we bring you stories of symbols, scripts and proofreader’s marks. Read on to find out how ampersand, Gothic and stet entered the lexicon of this staid discipline.

Ampersand

The word ampersand has one of the most unusual origins encountered in English etymology. Its history is closely linked to the character and symbol named after it: & (meaning and pronounced “and”), which is one of the most common “special characters” used in English texts. Ampersand is attested from 1837 in a text by the Nova Scotian politician and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton titled The Clockmaker; or, the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville: “He has hardly learned what Ampersand means, afore they give him a horse […]”—a sentence suggesting that even at that time the word’s meaning would have been considered elementary. The word comes in fact from the repetitive English-Latin phrase and per se and, literally meaning “and in itself and”.

The meaning of this odd explanation can be found in the age-old practice of alphabet recitation. In pre-twentieth-century English preschool classes, letters of the alphabet such as A, I and O were considered semantically ambiguous since they could also stand alone as independent words; A could be read as the indefinite article a, I as the ubiquitous first person singular personal pronoun, and O as an interjection expressing various emotions and intentions. To eliminate this possible confusion between letter and word, the Latin adverbial phrase per se, meaning “by itself”, was added to these letters when reciting the alphabet. When coming to A, I and O, teachers and students would say A per se A, meaning “A, the letter A”, and so forth. Because of its frequency in literature, the symbol & was for a long time added at the end of the English alphabet, becoming a sort of twenty-seventh letter. The final element, recited by generations of people as “and per se and”, morphed into the word ampersand.

The logogram & itself, much older than the term ampersand, was already used by the Romans at the beginning of the Christian era and was simply a stylized, calligraphic version of the two letters e and t, forming the Latin word et (“and”) and fused to form a ligature. The symbol is especially popular in the names of companies and firms, which probably see advantages in the visual brevity and undeniable aesthetics of the character.

Gothic

The original meaning of the adjective Gothic in English is “pertaining to the Goths and to their language”, and appears in early seventeenth-century texts. Goth itself is much older, occurring in a ninth-century translation in Old English of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (English title: Ecclesiastical History of the English People).

The Goths were a Germanic people and Gothic became a synonym for all things Germanic. It was especially applied to twelfth- to sixteenth-century Northern European architecture, characterized by the use of ogives (or pointed arches), rib vaults, flying buttresses and richly ornamented façades.

“Gothic script”, also called “Gothic minuscule” and “blackletter”, is an ornate typographical script commonly used in western Europe from approximately 1150 until the seventeenth century, and sometimes as late as the twentieth in Germany (still appearing today on some street name signs). Examples of characters using the script are: ℭ (“C”), ℌ (“H”), ℑ (“I”), ℜ (“R”) and ℨ (“Z”).

Both the architectural and typographical senses of Gothic were coined in the 1500s by Renaissance humanists, who used the term pejoratively, asserting that these apparently barbarous styles were of Germanic origin.

The name of the popular literary genre “Gothic fiction” is largely attributable to a specific work that later became the historical archetype for the genre. The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764 by English writer Horace Walpole (1717–1797), took the subtitle “A Gothic Story” in all its editions except the first. By “Gothic”, Walpole naturally did not refer to the novel’s heavy use of what would become the genre’s celebrated features (seemingly supernatural plot elements, horrific visions, gloomy and menacing decors, a touch of romance and action, etc.), but simply indicated that his story was set in medieval times.

Stet

The term stet, usually handwritten, is employed by printers and proofreaders to indicate that a certain portion of text should be kept as is, regardless of previous instructions.

In Classical Latin, stet is the third-person singular present active subjunctive form of the verb stare, which means “to stand” or “to stay”. The root of the Latin verb is found in a great number of English words connected with these senses in one way or another: station, stance, stable, status, state, estate, establish, statue, and many others. The conjugated form stet is generally translated as “Let it stand” and, in modern usage, is sometimes followed by an exclamation mark serving as an insistence (“Stet!”, as in “Leave as is!”).

Stet has been used by English printers since at least the 1700s. A comprehensive Printer’s Grammar from 1755 explained the following practice, still recommended today: “Where words are struck out that are afterwards again approved of, they [Correctors] mark dots under such words, and write in the Margin, Stet.” During the nineteenth century, the meaning of stet became familiar to writers, who sometimes used it during their own revisions of proofs.

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