Verbal Energy: Ampersands at risk, & a boxing snowman

Hipsters may seen the plus sign as a cool way to say 'and,' but we're not buying it.

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For nearly a year now, I've been hanging onto a clip from The New Yorker. And I've kept it basically for one single character in the headline on the article. The piece critiques a New York City Ballet production with a Prokofiev score, a well-known tale of star-crossed lovers, based on a Shakespeare play.

Oh, you may say, you must mean "Romeo and Juliet."

No, not quite. It is, if you please, "Romeo + Juliet."

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So what's with the plus sign?

I've been noticing for a while the plus sign appearing in titles, firm names, logos, and such where one might have expected, if not the basic word "and," then a good old-fashioned ampersand.

The intersection of two impossibly slender strokes, the plus sign looks like a set of cross hairs, with none of the swerve and verve of an ampersand. The plus sign is almost not there at all, like the nonexistent faucet handles in up-to-date public bathrooms where you wave your hands like a magician to get the water going.

Gruner+Jahr, the German publisher, was the first firm I noticed doing this. I have a theory that because German is such a formal language, German graphic designers find caprices like "+" instead of "and" particularly tempting.

I've since noted that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture and Planning styles itself SA+P and that the designers of Boston's new Institute of Contemporary Art are Diller Scofidio+Renfro. My latest e-mail from Zagat linked me to a collection of 28 contradictory customer reviews of a pan-Asian restaurant in Boston's South End known as Myers + Chang.

The Peter Martins ballet that The New Yorker reviewed seemed to be striving for a similar hipness. As Joan Acocella wrote, "The ballet we know as 'Romeo and Juliet,' which had its first incarnation in 1938, is a thundering, romantic business.... It is this empurpled quality, firmly supported by the Prokofiev score, which Martins has removed."

He managed this, in part, she explained, through his choice of a minimalist set designer: "[I]n the middle of the stage, he installed a little structure that looks like a two-car garage. This unit set serves as Juliet's bedchamber, Friar Laurence's cell, the Capulets' ballroom, the family crypt, and also the background for the balcony scene, though it has no balcony. Juliet hails Romeo from her roof, as if she lived in the Bronx."

It was clearly a very different telling of the tale of the star-crossed lovers from Verona. And that plus sign was a tip-off.

A little poking around on the Web has confirmed my sense that the ampersand is seen as a little quaint. A forum at typophile.com, an online typographical collaborative, included this comment: "It is a somewhat conservative symbol; contemporary designers have begun replacing it with + here in the US, particularly when used with Sans Serif type."

Following the thread further down the page, I see that not everyone is happy with this particular shift. "Self-indulgent" is one of the comments.

The ampersand is a stylized et, Latin for "and." In some cases it is extremely stylized. Ampersands vary widely from one typeface to another, and they are where font designers get the most opportunity to show off. The ampersand provides scope for the imagination, as Anne of Green Gables might say. And this may be what keeps it around for some time to come.

For instance, Adobe Systems, the publishing software company, has on its website a history of the ampersand. It includes an Italian Humanist ampersand that looks to me like a snowman challenging someone to a boxing match. ("Put up your dukes.")

The ampersand was almost a millennium and a half old when that version came in around 1500. I'd expect it to continue for at least another millennium and a half more – plus or minus a few cool architects.

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