“A picture is worth a thousand words,” according to the old saying. Sometimes, though, three words are worth three pictures, or at least three symbols. While it is often said that more than half of our English vocabulary comes from ancient Latin, it is also worth noting that Latin has also provided some of our abbreviations and punctuation marks.
Let’s begin with that curious little symbol known as the ampersand (&), which was actually once a letter in our alphabet. The ampersand was formed when writers would tie together (the fancy term for this tying together is ligature) the letters E and T of the Latin word et, which means “and.” The earliest known written form of the ampersand was preserved by the volcanic eruption that destroyed ancient Pompeii and thus dates back to the first century A.D.
Speaking of the Latin word et… This also shows up in the phrase et cetera, which is abbreviated as etc., and means “and other things.” One note about the phrase et cetera; when pronouncing this phrase, the word et sounds like “eht” not “ehk.” The latter pronunciation makes this Latin teacher’s skin crawl. *shudder*
Not only does the ampersand come from Latin, but also the exclamation point (!) appears to have a Latin origin. The Latin word io could express joy (hoorah!), pain (oh!), or could be used to call someone’s attention to something (look!). Our exclamation point is a result of putting what looks like a capital I on top of the letter o. In print, the letter o is made quite small.
As with the exclamation point, our question mark (?) also has a Latin origin. The English word “question” comes from the Latin word quaestio, which can also mean “question.” When we remove all of this word’s letters except for the first and last, we are left with the letters q and o. Place the q on top of the o and the result is our question mark. As with the exclamation point, the letter o has been reduced into a small dot. The top part of our question mark is a stylized version of the letter q.
So, the next time you use an ampersand, exclamation point, or a question mark, remember to thank an ancient Roman. Io, Romani!?!?
John Thorburn is the Director of K-12 Foreign Languages and Humanities at ResponsiveEd. He has served as professor of Classics at Baylor University as well as taught at multiple other schools and universities. In addition to being proficient in Latin and Ancient Greek, Thorburn has studied Italian, German and French.
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