Who are you? This is a frequent question in froufrou lifestyle contexts, but also an existential one. The question of how you take your coffee is inoffensive even if you happen to prefer tea. The question of what animal “you are” may require a bit more contemplation. Wise? Adroit one? Cute? And when someone asks you who you’d be if you didn’t happen to be precisely yourself, the time runs out before you can decide on your answer. Obviously, our choices reveal our deeper selves. Large or small, they say something about who we are, or aspire to being.
—–In his undergraduate thesis in the applied arts, graphic designer Edvin Thungren scrutinizes the ampersand, a typographical curlicue with an astonishingly rich history. He studies its origins and construction, fascinated by how people have related to this symbol over time, not least the hordes of typographers and linguists who have devoted themselves to inventing names for it, and to its exegesis. In his introduction, Thungren states that he is not going to be prescriptive about its applications and that, in fact, it may be impossible to establish when the ampersand is most appropriately used. This raises the issue of whether there is any purely practical justification for its existence at all. Although it may have been invented once upon a time to save the engraver or the scribe a little sweat, today (when fewer and fewer documents are written by hand) the most it can save anyone is a couple of keystrokes in comparison with et or ‘n and none whatsoever compared with +.
—–My curiosity is piqued. When people choose to use the ampersand today, do they do so for purely stylistic reasons? If so, would it be possible to characterize the user? Might one speculate that the user of the little ‘n would be a good-natured young father who goes on at length about his children’s colds and his housing co-op’s allotment garden (and who talks baby talk even to those of us who have been potty trained for decades)? And the person who writes et, might she be your grandmother (or some other elderly female relative with a head of hair like cotton candy)? What about the champion of the + sign: is he a man whose pride and joy are his roof garden and his art photography collection? He likes white. He loves black. And once upon a time he wrote a novel with no punctuation, set at a PR agency. Is the advocate of the slash a chilly soul? He even wears his cap indoors. His lifestyle blends typographical acrobatics with imported ale and spare parts for his canary-yellow velodrome bike.
—–And if all this is true, who is the proponent of the ampersand? I can tell you. She sat at the desk next to mine throughout secondary school. A flowery lass, inclined to hum, with hair so long she could sit on it. She adored flourishes. The G clef was king, but a bit too much trouble. So she favored the ampersand instead, and couldn’t wait to turn eighteen to have it tattooed over her right should.
—–Nina, if you’re reading this, please be in touch and let me know how it worked out!