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March 27, 2020  |  Friday words #213  |  3856 hit(s)

Some related terms today, as I'll explain later. The new-to-me word for this week is paleography, which refers to old manuscripts and/or the study and decipherment thereof. I've put this term three times into the GDoc where I keep these words, it seems. I originally got it from a Fiat Lex podcast; it came up on Ellen Jovin's Facebook feed last week; and I ran across it again in a book about punctuation.

The root paleo means "old"; graph, of course, is "writing." One who performs the service of decipherment is a paleographer.

A term like "old writing" probably conjures up things like the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it's true that paleographers do work on documents that old. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was a big moment in paleography, providing a key to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphical writing.

But paleography can include more recent documents as well. For example, paleographers work on medieval manuscripts. Many a would-be paleographer has attempted to decipher the Voynich manuscript from the 1400s (assumed), which continues to be mysterious. And paleographers don't just decipher old manuscripts. They also do things like trace the lineage of the handwriting styles that the documents were written in.

The word paleography can also be used metaphorically to mean deciphering any handwriting. For example, in the Fiat Lex podcast, Kory Stamper talks about the paleography of reading the handwriting of many editors who have scribbled notes about dictionary entries.

Here's something fun: you might not know it, but you probably have participated in a paleographical exercise. If you've ever been prompted by ReCaptcha to type in a distorted-looking word to prove that you're not a bot, you've been helping with a crowdsourced paleography exercise:

This was an outgrowth of Google's gigantic project to digitize every book and newspaper they could get their hands on. They used optical character recognition (OCR) to turn the scans into text. Alas, OCR couldn't always decipher the words. So some smart folks turned the unrecognized words into a bot challenge that they could present to thousands of people. By asking a lot of people to squint at the weird-looking word, they could home in what the word probably said. You can read more about this project on, where else, Wikipedia. And if you want to participate more actively in some paleographic efforts, you can help transcribe old documents for the Library of Congress.

On to origins. For today I have the word ampersand, the punctuation character (&). There seem to be some fanciful explanations for the origins of this term. For example, on Urban Dictionary (not known for its etymological rigor), someone says that ampersand is from "Amper's and," Amper having supposedly been a 17th-century German typographer.

Anyway, forget that. Ampersand is not an eponym. The story is better than that, which I learned from the Keith Houston's book Shady Characters, a history of punctuation, while reading about, yes, paleography. The ampersand symbol started as Roman shorthand for et, the Latin word for "and." An ampersand symbol meant "and," just like we use it today. It was literally an and.

This is the good part. In the 1800s, the ampersand character was considered the 27th letter of the alphabet. If you recited the alphabet, you'd finish up with "… X, Y, Z, and per se and," where that last and referred to the ampersand character. When you said "per se and," you were saying "and by itself." This verbal clot, through a lot of repetition by bored schoolchildren and bit of mushiness, evolved into ampersand.

And … there you have it.

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