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The ß glyph is a lowercase letter than represents a ligature between a long s and a round s, and is still used today in (some versions of) German. Its uppercase equivalent is two characters instead of one: SS.

It was apparently also once used in just the same way English, but I cannot find just exactly when or where. Was it used in manuscript only, or in printed books? During what time period would this have run? If in print, was it done only in blackletter faces in English, or was it also done in the less German-looking ones?


Somewhat related is the question What animal is a “weefil”?.

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What sort of evidence do you have that it was once also used in English? (presumably not actual text) –  Mitch Jan 2 '13 at 17:32
    
@Mitch If you look at the letter reproduced below, it was clearly used there. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 6:46
    
When you wrote the original question, had you seen for yoirself such a thing or had you only heard about it? –  Mitch Jan 3 '13 at 12:15
    
@Mitch I had seen it before, yes. It was not just some hypothetical. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 12:21
    
If you do a full-text search in the OED you get two results of it used as a single character. One is probably a 2007 typo for beta, but I'm not sure about the other from 1726: "Tartar prepared with Nitre ℥i. Orange Pills ℥ß. Infuse them in a Pint of Parsly-Water." –  Hugo Jan 5 '13 at 8:17

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If this source is to be believed, the German Eszett is an intentional, early 20th century borrowing into Antiqua from Fraktur of a ligature of ſ and z — whether or not, in any given font, the Eszett resembles the ſ-s ligature is apparently purely a matter of typographical taste.

As for the ſ-s ligature itself, it would have been in use only as long as long s was in use, which seems to have been until the early 19th century.

EDIT: If Wikipedia’s to be believed, what I wrote above is wrong, and Andrew Leach should be correct that the ſ-s ligature had fallen completely from favour in English, at least by the 18th century. However, that ligature does seem to have seen use in English in the 16th and 17th centuries, if only in the italic not roman. See here, under “Rules for Long S in Early Printed Books” for examples, where “the True Copie of a Letter from the Qveenes Maiestie, London 1586” featured below is discussed. Note the ſ-s ligatures here:


The True Copie of a Letter from the Qveenes Maiestie, London 1586

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@tchrist Since it would be silly to upvote my own answer, thank you for the edits! –  Branimir Ćaćić Jan 3 '13 at 8:16
    
Don’t worry, I already upvoted it. :) I just wanted to put the letter right here so people can see the examples without hunting for it. Glad to help. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 8:20

The ß ligature was used as part of the apothecaries' system of weights and measures used throughout Europe. Often Latin was used as the lingua franca, but it was also used in English medical recipes.

Here's an example from Sir John Floyer's A Treatise Of The Asthma (1726):

Tartar prepared with Nitre ℥i. Orange Pills ℥ß. Infuse them in a Pint of Parsly-Water.

The funny z-squiggle (℥) is the apothecaries' ounce sign (Unicode hexadecimal: 0x2125). The i is the Roman numeral for one, and ß is from ss meaning semis, or a half. This recipe requires tartar prepared with one ounce of nitre and half an ounce of orange peels.

From Wikipedia:

There was a technical reason why 3 ʒ was written ʒiij, and 1⁄2 ʒ as ʒß or ʒss: The letters "ss" are an abbreviation for the Latin "semis" meaning "half," while the Sharp S ("ß") is an abbreviation for "ss." In Apothecaries' Latin, numbers were generally written, in Roman numerals, immediately following the symbol. Since only the units of the apothecaries' system were used in this way, this made it clear that the civil weight system was not meant.

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shapecatcher.com helped me identify ℥ as the apothecaries' ounce sign. –  Hugo Jan 5 '13 at 9:07

The ß ligature was never used in English typography, even when the long s was customary, for example when it was followed by a short s at the end of a word like Congress (see the US Bill of Rights).

Long S in US Bill of Rights

The long s–short s combination was always set as two separate characters, ſs, and although some Continental type founts combined them into a single glyph, it wasn't used in English printing.

Wikipedia has rather a nice illustration showing how ſs became a ligature and adopted its current customary shape. Shape 3 is still often seen (for example on German street signs), and shape 2 is still available in some typefaces.

Development of SZ ligature

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1. It is not absolutely true that the long s--short s ligature was never used in English---16th and 17th century examples of this, albeit in italics, can be found here, under "Rules for Long S in Early Printed Books": babelstone.co.uk/Blog/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html 2. 3. and 4. are not long s--short s ligatures, but rather Antiqua adaptations of a long s--z ligature in Fraktur, at least if the account I linked to is to be believed. –  Branimir Ćaćić Jan 2 '13 at 16:37
    
@BranimirĆaćić That blog post doesn't illustrate an ſs ligature -- plenty of others, but not ſs, which rather proves my point. The rules for German spelling and the modification/reuse of ſs for ſz are not relevant (although I thought that the development of ſs as an Antiqua ligature was interesting). –  Andrew Leach Jan 2 '13 at 16:47
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The Letter is a pamphlet printed in London in 1586, if the website is to be believed. As for Micrographia, look at the very first sentence: "AFter my Addreß to our Great Founder..." –  Branimir Ćaćić Jan 2 '13 at 17:09
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The same article as before, babelstone.co.uk/Blog/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html, under "Rules for Long S in Early Printed Books." –  Branimir Ćaćić Jan 2 '13 at 17:14
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I walked past the site of Shakespeare's Globe theatre this weekend (here: goo.gl/maps/kIKcn). I noticed one of the maps reproduced on the information boards has a building labelled "Eßex House". Next time I'm nearby I'll check the date. –  misterben Jan 2 '13 at 17:26

1870 U.S. census, population schedules. NARA microfilm publication M593, 1,761 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.Minnesota census schedules for 1870. NARA microfilm publication T132, 13 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.Longhand "sharp s" was still utilized during the late 19th century in the American Midwest. As you can see from the attached 1870 US Federal Census, the census enumerator on lines 38 and 39 scribed "Melissa" and "Clarissa" as Malißa (sic) and Clarißa.

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Wow! Very impressive find! –  tchrist Feb 12 at 23:51
    
These do not look like sharp S but more like long S. This is especially clear in “Harneſs Maker”. And interesting the inconsistencies. “Maliſsa” and “Clariſsa”, and “Harneſs Maker” – but “Missouri”. Also no long S in “Millersburg”, “Reason”, “Rosetta”, “Teamster”, or “English Township”. –  MετάEd Feb 13 at 0:07

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