Most people reading this will know that “&” and “and” mean the same thing. Some will also know that the ampersand’s “&” shape originated from the handwritten word “et” (Latin for “and”). The “e” and the “t” are combined into a single character, making “&” the best-known example of a brevigraph. Instead of writing out “et cetera” you can simply write “&c.” But what about a symbol that looks like the number “9”?
In this case, the 9 symbol represents us and this phrase would be read aloud as “thus passing the time.” Short-cuts like the ones in the phrase shown here had been common for centuries in European hand-written texts, so it’s not surprising that they carried over into printing. That’s just what words on a page were supposed to look like. Some printed brevigraphs lasted longer than others, & some are still with us.1
This post provides hints for interpreting printed brevigraphs, showing some of the most common ones as illustrations.2
Don’t panic. Many brevigraphs are impossibly cryptic when they’re seen in isolation. To figure them out, you have to read the surrounding text. Often the same word, unabbreviated, appears close by. Sometimes, the meaning is obvious because the brevigraphs are part of a formulaic phrase in a predictable place (the same way you know that “PTO” means “please turn over” and not “paid time off” when it’s scribbled in the bottom right corner of a note). In other cases, the meaning depends on position, like the abbreviation “Dr.” in English, where “Dr. Garcia” is clearly a person, and “Garcia Dr.” is clearly a location. And of course, if the words are obviously meant to rhyme, it often doesn’t take much of a clue to know how to fill in the blank.
That being said, typesetters sometimes used brevigraphs in ways not listed here, and sometimes they just made mistakes. There’s still no point panicking, though. Just shrug and move on. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find another version of the same text later to use as a key.
The following examples appear roughly in order of the modern number or letter they look like, not what they actually are (except for the first five, which don’t resemble anything that has an established order).
This is the easy one. Ampersands are still in use today, so instead of expanding the brevigraph & in square brackets, rare materials catalogers3 simply use an ampersand. See also no. 8, the Tironian sign et used as an ampersand.
= & (Latin, see in context)
= & (Italian, see in context)
2. [smooth horizontal line above letter]
A plain line over a letter indicates the omission of one or more letters. The marked letter is not included within the expansion in catalogers’ transcriptions (unlike jagged horizontal lines above letters).
Over a vowel, the line typically indicates that an n or an m belongs after the vowel.
Over consonants, the missing letter(s) could come before the marked letter, after the marked letter, or both before and after.
= q[uonia]m (Latin, see in context)
= D[omi]n[u]s (Latin, see in context)
3. [jagged horizontal line above letter]
A jagged line indicates the omission of an a (with or without other letters); the marked letter is included within the expansion in catalogers’ transcriptions (unlike with smooth horizontal lines above letters).
= [qua]si (Latin, see in context)
= [tra]do (Latin, see in context)
4. [apostrophe after letter]
Apostrophes are still used to represent missing letters, but today they’re only used in conventional contractions, and the sounds of the missing letters aren’t supplied. In early modern printing (especially in Latin) they could appear in all sorts of places, representing one or more missing letters that would have been mentally supplied by the reader.
= t[er]ra[m] (Latin, see in context; for [m] see no. 2)
5. [weird vertical line at end of word]
Depending on the font, these can look like a closing curly bracket, a closing square bracket, or just a tall squiggly thing. In all cases, the brevigraph represents an s preceded by a vowel (typically es in English and is in Latin).
= charett[es] (English, see in context, where it is an alternative spelling of “chariots”)
= mult[is] (Latin, see in context)
= [gra]dier[is] (Latin, see in context; for [gra] see no. 3)
= mar[is] (Latin, see in context)
6. [3 at end of word]
Typically represents m or et (and sometimes us) but behaves differently after long-s, h, and q (as seen in no. 16, no. 17, no. 19, no. 27, and no. 28). I kept changing my mind about whether this looks more like a 3 or a handwritten z but handwritten z doesn’t work on a computer screen, so it’s a 3.
= quiete[m] (Latin, see in context)
= defe[n]der[et] (Latin, see in context; for [n] see no. 2)
7. [4 at end of word]
Stands for rum (and I’ll grant that it only looks like a 4 if it’s an open-top 4). See no. 33 for the rum brevigraph that looks like Rx.
= quo[rum] (Latin, see in context)
8. [7 at beginning of word]
An alternative shape for &, but actually the Tironian short hand symbol ⁊, which represents the sound “et” (rather than the word as such). If a particular font didn’t have a dedicated Tironian sign et, then ꝛ (a small “r rotunda“) could be used. Because the symbol is a representation of & and because & is still used today, rare materials catalogers silently replace it with &. See no. 1 for ampersandy ampersands.
= & (Latin, see in context)
= & (English, see in context)
9. [9 at beginning of word]
Stands for con or com when it appears at the beginning of a word. It is a variation of the backwards c with a tail in no. 13, but can look exactly the same as the 9-shaped brevigraph that represents us at the end of a word (see no. 10) so I’ve listed it separately here.
= [con]corde (French, see in context)
= [com]me (French, see in context)
10. [9 at end of word]
Stands for us when it appears at the end of a word (as shown at the start of this blog post). It can appear either as a superscript, or with its tail on the line. For the same brevigraph at the beginning of a word, see no. 9, where it represents con or com.
= th[us] (English, see in context)
= no[us] (French, see in context)
= mag[us] (Latin, see in context)
= gen[us] (Latin, see in context)
= min[us] (Latin, see in context)
11. [b (actually a long-s with a bump)]
Stands for ser, or sometimes sis, but also used in the brevigraph for “secundum” (see no. 12). In the vernacular, though, it is an ordinary early modern double-s.
= [ser]u[us] (Latin, see in context; for [us] see no. 10)
= Auss (German, see in context)
12. [bm (actually a long-s with a bump + m)]
Stands for secundum in Latin, and appears a lot in early printed texts because it not only means “second” it means “following” or “according to” (and lots of early printed texts are commentaries and compilations that reference what people said in other works).
= [secundu]m (Latin, see in context)
13. [backwards c, with or without a tail]
Typically stands for con or com, but can also represent cum, cun, and other c-syllables.
= [con]scie[n]tia (Latin, see in context; for [n] see no. 2)
= [com]mane[n]t (Latin, see in context; for [n] see no. 2)
= [con]cepit (Latin, see in context)
14. [d with two ascenders]
Stands for de and (depending on the language) also for der, dis, dum and other d-syllables. See also no. 29, where it does something different following a q.
= [de] (Latin, see in context)
= [de][us] (Latin, see in context; for [us] see no. 10)
= [de]ua[n]t (French, see in context; for [n] see no. 2)
= [der] (German, see in context)
15. [e with a hook underneath]
Stands for ae
= c[ae]lum (Latin, see in context)
16. [f3, but not really an f ]
Not an f! It’s a long-s. You can tell it’s not an f because the crossbar only appears on the left, if at all. The brevigraph stands for sed in Latin, whether or not the characters are touching. In the vernacular, though, catalogers transcribe it as an ordinary early modern double-s when they’re touching, and as sz when they’re not.
= [sed] (Latin, see in context)
= [sed] (Latin, see in context)
= Kiess (German, see in context)
= Überflusz (German, see in context)
17. [fc3 but not really an f]
Not an f! It’s a long-s. The brevigraph stands for scilicet in Latin. Current rare cataloging guidelines say to enclose the entire expansion within square brackets, but the s and the c look like ordinary letters to me, not part of the brevigraph, so I’d transcribe it as “sc[ilicet]” and dare the cataloging police to come after me.
= [scilicet] or sc[ilicet] (Latin, see in context)
18. [h with a tick on top]
Stands for h-syllables like han, het, and hic
= Io[han]es (Latin, see in context)
= [pro]p[het]as (Latin, see in context; for [pro] see no. 23)
= [hic] (Latin, see in context)
This is the same 3 or handwritten z symbol seen in no. 6, and is considered a single brevigraph representing habet in rare materials cataloging, so it is expanded as “[habet]” rather than “h[abet]” according to current guidelines.
= [habet] (Latin, see in context)
20. [little o on top of a letter]
Stands for o (with or without other letters) in Latin. In German, however, it really is a superscript o, a medieval superscript letter diacritic.4
= [ergo] (Latin, see in context)
= [quo]s (Latin, see in context)
= muͦss (German, see in context)
21. [p with a tick on top]
Stands for pri
= [pri]m[us] (Latin, see in context; for [us] see no. 2)
22. [p with a crossed descender]
Stands for per, par, or por
= [per]sons (English, see in context)
= sem[per] (Latin, see in context)
= [par]tes (Latin, see in context, following the same brevigraph as per)
= cor[por]is (Latin, see in context)
23. [p with a trailing scarf]
Stands for pro (see no. 18 for another example).
= [pro]duise (French, see in context)
= [pro]stratos (Latin, see in context)
24. [q with a tick on top]
Stands for qui
= ali[qui]s (Latin, see in context)
25. [q with a crossed descender]
Stands for qui
= se[qui] (Latin, see in context)
26. [q with a crossed descender, wearing a hat]
Stands for quam or quan. The wee hat indicates that an a-syllable is missing: it’s the same jagged horizontal line seen in no. 3. See no. 28 for a different brevigraph representing quam or quan.
= Quan[quam] (Latin, see in context)
= [quan]tum (Latin, see in context)
Stands for que. This is the same 3 or handwritten z symbol already seen in no. 6, no. 16, and no. 17. It can look like a semi-colon in italic type.5
= at[que] (Latin, see in context)
= cui[que] (Latin, see in context)
= vs[que] (Latin, see in context)
28. [q3 wearing a hat]
Stands for quam or quan. See also no. 26. It’s basically the same brevigraph as no. 27, but with a jagged horizontal line on top (no. 3) to indicate that the missing syllable involves an a.
= [quan]tu[m] (Latin, see in context; for [m] see no. 2)
= nun[quam] (Latin, see in context)
29. [qd where the d has two ascenders]
Stands for quod. See no. 14 for the same d-shape when it’s not following a q.
= q[uod] (Latin, see in context)
= q[uod] (Latin, see in context)
30. [q and p sharing a stem]
Stands for quod. Can also stand for que. (And it’s not really a p, it’s just a one-bump variant of the two-bump squiggle that looks like a 3 or a handwritten z, but I figured this was a reasonable place for it in an alphabetical list.)
= [quod] (Latin, see in context)
31. [q and p sharing a stem and wearing a hat]
Stands for quam or quan. It’s the same brevigraph as no. 30, but with the jagged horizontal line on top (no. 3) indicating that it involves an a-syllable.
= nun[quam] (Latin, see in context)
= [quan]t (French, see in context)
32. [qr where the r is a small r-rotunda]
Stands for quia. Not to be confused with a small r-rotunda used in place of a Tironian sign et, as seen in no. 8.
= [quia] (Latin, see in context)
33. [Rx when it doesn’t mean prescription medicine]
Stands for rum. See no. 7 for the rum brevigraph that looks like an open-top 4.
= re[rum] (Latin, see in context)
34. [t with a tick or zig-zag on top, at end of word]
Stands for ur.
= testat[ur] (Latin, see in context)
= fert[ur] (Latin, see in context)
= videt[ur] (Latin, see in context)
35. [v with a line through the first half]
Stands for ver or vir. You could argue that it looks more like an x and v merged together, but I always see it as a funny looking v, not a funny looking x.
= [ver]itat[is] (Latin, see in context; for [is] see no. 5)
= [vir]tutes[que] (Latin, see in context; for [que] see no. 27)
36. [xp (but technically χρ)]
Stands for all or part of the word Christ. It’s a Latin adoption of chi and rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, “Χριστός” (Kristos).
= [ch]ristienne (French, see in context)
= [Christ]i (Latin, see in context); see no. 2 for the horizontal line)
= [Christu]s (Latin, see in context; see no. 2 for the horizontal line)
37. [y (but originally a handwritten Middle English þ)]
Stands for th in Early Modern English. Frequently used with a superscript e, t, or u as a brevigraph for the, that, or thou. Because yͤ is clearly a single piece of type, rare book catalogers consider it a one-character brevigraph, and enclose the entire expansion in square brackets.6
= [the] (English, see in context)
= [that] (English, see in context)
I hope this hits the most common interpretations of the most common brevigraphs encountered in 15th- and 16-century European printed texts. It’s is a long list, but it isn’t an exhaustive one. Please use the comments to suggest others worth adding, or if you see any problems with the ones I’ve set out here.
- Technically, some of the examples in this post are abbreviations and contractions, not brevigraphs, since they aren’t special characters in continuance of manuscript tradition. At the risk of having my pedantry license revoked, I’m going to use “brevigraphs” as the general category here. In my defence, abbreviations and contractions are brief ways of representing something graphically, moreover, the word “brevigraphs” has appropriate connotations of “weird squiggly things from olden times.”
- This post is also an example of what happens when you get carried away with a volunteer project. In preparation for the forthcoming revision of DCRM (Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials) I cheerily said I’d replace the low-resolution images in the existing “Early letterforms and symbols” chart with new high-resolution images. I became obsessed, and ended up with way more information than will fit. On the plus side, it gave me a topic for this Collation post (not to mention a chance to use the Comments section to crowd-source corrections and additions. The chart for catalogers hasn’t been published yet, so there’s still time). See https://rbms.info/dcrm/rda/ for updates about the revision as a whole.
- Where by “rare materials catalogers” I mean “rare materials catalogers who are following the guidelines for transcription provided in Appendix G of the international cataloging standard Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials.”
- An earlier version of this post claimed that the superscript o in German functioned as a modern umlaut, but that is incorrect (and the result of me mis-reading my notes). See Marc Wilhelm Kuster and Isabel Wojtovicz, “Diacritics for medieval studies,” N2266 2000.09.14, a paper submitted to the ISO Standards Development Working Group on Universal Coded Character Sets, for more information about superscript letter diacritics (and how the superscript letter o is not to be confused with the ring diacritic, or “overring”. “Combining Latin Small Letter o” (U+0366) was added to Unicode in 2002.
- If anyone spots an example of the English word “cheque” where this brevigraph takes the place of the “que” please let me know. I’ve heard they exist, but still haven’t found one in the wild.
- Enclosing the entire word in square brackets is anathama to paleographers, who deal with handwritten brevigraphs, and therefore see yͤ as two characters (one normal-sized, the other tiny). Accordingly, paleographers use [th]e, not [the], when transcribing yͤ. In order to keep the peace, the DCRM module for manuscript cataloging is deliberately vague. It just says “Enclose interpolations within quoted material in square brackets,” without giving examples. Instead of the appendix with charts of “Early Letterforms and Symbols” found in the other DCRM modules, the DCRM(MSS) module has an annotated bibliography of “Selected Resources for Reading Early Modern Handwriting” so that institutions can make their own policy decisions. The Folger’s policy is to follow the conventions of semi-diplomatic transcription, so we type [th]e when transcribing the handwritten brevigraph yͤ.