Gamut, Ampersand, Dollar, At


In a review of the play The Lake, Dorothy Parker once wrote:

“Go to the Martin Beck Theatre and see Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Gamut, meaning a full range or scale, comes from musical theory. In the eleventh century, Guido of Arezzo devised a system of musical notation in which the notes were named after the first syllable from each line of the Latin hymn Ut Queant Laxis:

Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
Labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes.

The lowest note in the range was gamma ut (gamma – the Greek letter G; ut was changed to do in 1600). The contracted form, gamut, was used to refer to the complete musical scale.


The same process of word concatenation was at play in the formation of ampersand, the name for the & character. The symbol is an abbreviated form of et, the Roman word for and. Since medieval times, it had been the convention when reciting the alphabet to append the Latin phrase per se, meaning in itself, to the letters that could also stand alone as words. Therefore, the first letter of the alphabet was recited as A per se A.

Until the mid eighteenth century, the ampersand was the last element of the alphabet recited by school children, so they would finish with the phrase and per se and. This slowly morphed into the word ampersand. At one time, the word apersey, a contraction of A per se A, was in use as an adjective meaning the first or most important.


It’s difficult to imagine how a letter S bisected by a vertical line could come to represent the dollar. There are many stories as to where it came from but the most likely is that it derived from the shorthand symbol for peso, pS. In eighteenth century North America, the Spanish American peso was known as the Spanish dollar, and by the 1770s, the S had been enlarged and the p reduced to a single line. The symbol was adopted for the American dollar in 1785.

The word dollar comes from the German thal, meaning valley (which also appears in the word Neanderthal; the first remains discovered were from the Neander Valley in Germany). Beginning in 1520, coins made from the silver mined at Joachimsthal in the Czech Republic (St Joachim’s Valley; St Joachim being the grandfather of Jesus Christ and husband of St Ann) were known as Joachimsthalers. This was shortened to thaler and transposed into various European languages, Ethiopian and Persian.

In the early twentieth century, Joachimsthal was also prominent for being the only known source of radium in the world. Marie Curie first extracted it from pitchblende ore from the silver mines there.

Strangely, Neandertal could also have easily been called Joachimstal as it was named after Joachim Neander, a German pastor who used the valley as a site for his sermons. Neander is perhaps more fitting as it means new man.


The @ symbol is known in English as the ‘at sign’. Since it became more widespread with its use in email addresses, many non-English speaking countries have given it more imaginative names.:

Danish: snabel-a (elephant’s trunk-a)

Finnish: kissanhäntä (cat’s tail)

Polish: małpa (monkey’s tail)

Italian: chiocciola (snail)

Turkish: kulak (ear)

Slovak: zavinac (rollmop)

Hebrew: shtrudl (strudel)

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