Typing Through Time: Tracing the Roots of Common Keyboard Symbols

Last Updated on October 28, 2023

Exploring the Origins of Special Characters on Your Keyboard

Have you ever wondered where those special characters on your keyboard, like %, #, and &, came from? These symbols have a interesting history for letter lovers, and their origins can be traced back to and technological innovations. Let’s delve into the fascinating history of these characters.

The Percentage Sign (%)

The percentage sign (%) has a pretty straightforward origin. In the 1300’s it started from traders use of the Italian phrase “per cento,” which means “by the hundred.” Over time, (and mostly due to brevity) other short hands were used for “per cento,” like: “p cento”, “per 100” and “p 100.” These abbreviations then evolved into the % sign and became the symbol we know today.

The Hash or Pound Sign (#) aka “Octothorpe”

The symbol “#” has a multifaceted history and different names depending on where you’re from and in what context it is used. In the world of social media, the # symbol found new significance as the “hashtag.” In the early days of social media, the hashtag was used to categorize and search for topics. Today, it’s a ubiquitous symbol for tagging content across various platforms. In the United States, it’s often called the “pound sign” (not to be confused with the pound sterling of Great Britain “£”). However, in other parts of the world, it’s known as the “hash sign,” “hash,” and “number sign.”

It’s roots can be traced back to the Latin words “libra pondo,” meaning “weight in pounds”. Over time, again for brevity, this phrase was abbreviated to “℔,” with the “l” and “b” from libra and a crossbar. As this abbreviation was handwritten more in cursive, this eventually morphed into the # symbol.

The Ampersand (&)

The ampersand (&) is one of the oldest special characters still in use today. Its history dates back to ancient Rome when scribes developed a shorthand way of writing the Latin word “et,” which means “and.” This shorthand was created by joining the letters “e” and “t” together in a ligature form, resembling the modern ampersand.

The term “ampersand” itself has an interesting origin. It comes from the phrase “and per se and,” which means “and, by itself, and.” In the past, when reciting the alphabet, the ampersand was considered the 27th letter, following “z.” People would say, “X, Y, Z, and per se and,” which eventually got slurred together into “ampersand.

The Dollar Sign ($)

The dollar sign ($) has very little evidence to hint at its origins, which leaves space for folklore to pop up. The story with the strongest evidence, which is still hotly debated, goes like this: the dollar sign evolved from the Spanish peso, which was a widely used currency in the Americas during the 18th century. This peso, in its day, was often represented with the letters “Ps.” Similar to the other symbols, whether due to repetition or just for brevity the letters could have merged into a sort of monogram. That monogram over time, merged into the familiar $ symbol we use today.

The Asterisk (*)

The asterisk (*) has its roots in ancient Greece, where right from its inception it was used in textual annotations to mark corrections or additions to a document. The term “asterisk” itself is derived from the Greek word “asteriskos,” meaning “little star.” In modern usage, the asterisk is a versatile symbol often employed for footnotes, corrections, censorship, or as a wildcard character in computer programming.

The Exclamation Mark (!)

The exclamation mark (!), also known as a “bang” in informal terms, has a less certain origin. It is believed to have evolved from the Latin word “io,” which was an exclamation of joy or triumph at the end of a sentence (like saying hooray). Over time, scribes added the “i” on top of the “o” and further still, the “o” shrank into a dot.

The At Sign (@)

The at sign (@) has a varied history. Its earliest known use dates back 1536 in a letter by Francesco Lapi where it was used to represent “at the rate of” or “each at.” E.g. 3 products @ $3 a product = $9. The symbol itself was a merge of “e” and “a” an abbreviation of “each at”. It appeared in various other forms, including “a” with a small “t” above it, an for different uses like replacing the word amen in religious texts. In the 20th century, the @ symbol found new life in email addresses when Ray Tomlinson, an American computer engineer, chose it to separate the username from the host computer’s name in email addresses.


The special characters on your keyboard have diverse and intriguing origins, spanning centuries and cultures. From the Spanish peso giving us the dollar sign ($) to ancient Greek annotations leading to the asterisk (*), each symbol has a unique story to tell. Whether you’re using them for currency, coding, emphasis, or communication, these characters enrich our written language and add depth to our digital interactions. So, the next time you type one of these symbols, remember the rich history encoded in your keystrokes.

Did I miss anything? Let me know if you have any symbols you want the origins of down in the comments. Thanks for reading,


1 thought on “Typing Through Time: Tracing the Roots of Common Keyboard Symbols”

  1. Whoa! I never knew this before! Thanks for all your studies you’ve had to do to pass this onto us! Your site has so much interesting aspects to it!


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