This week I will cover two very old Latin symbols used in English. Today they are standard English. Both of them are abbreviations from Latin and were used to save money. Long ago when paper was very expensive, people shortened what they wrote to use as little paper as possible.
The Percent Sign
I know of a teacher who told his students that % was short for 1/100. That seems to make sense; it is a reasonable guess, but it is wrong. The percent symbol was short for per cento which means for each hundred in Latin. About 500 years ago the short form of per cento was written:
per C O
About 300 years ago the "c" closed up because of sloppy handwriting and became another "o". A line was added. It looked like this:
Later the "per" was dropped to create almost the modern form:
--- , O/O
Finally it became:
If you want to be really troublesome, complain that the bottom O is incorrect and it should be a letter C!
Percentages are often misused by Hong Kong English speakers. The price of a bottle of wine is lowered from $100 to $90. In English, it is a 10% discount; that means the new price is 10% off the old price. In Hong Kong sometimes people directly translate from the Chinese form and write that there is a 90% discount, meaning that the new price is 90% of the old one. In English a 90% discount would mean the price was lowered from $100 to $10.
Native speakers also make maths mistakes with %. The price of the bottle wine is $100 and there is a fifty percent increase in price, then the new price is $150. If this is followed with a 50% decrease the new price is half of 150, which is $75, not the original price. A 300% price decrease is impossible, but that is sometimes incorrectly written to mean a drop to one third of the original price.
In formal sentences it is more common to use the form percent (written out) instead of the symbol %. The symbol % is used more often in tables and charts. Here I used the symbol % because it is what was being discussed. Both forms are correct and it is the writer’s choice which form they wish to use.
In order to save paper, one very common word to shorten was and. Since most old European writing was in Latin, not the barbaric English, the Latin word et, meaning and, was shortened by combining the two letters into one symbol &.
So why is it called an ampersand? Long ago when people listed words they did it by syllable groups. (Spelling was too inconstant to use the first letter.) Some words were syllables by themselves and they were listed, in Latin, as per se meaning by itself. So the word I would have been listed as I per se I. The English word and was listed as and per se and. After getting mispronounced and misspelled for a few hundred years it eventually became ampersand.
Today the symbol ampersand is used in informal writing and note taking in order to make writing quicker. Formal writing usually only uses them for the names of companies and accepted acronyms.
Both of these two symbols are very common in English, but like much of English were taken from other languages.
by John Larrysson
A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.