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, 2013 at 17:32
  • @Mitch If you look at the letter reproduced below, it was clearly used there.
    – tchrist
    Jan 3, 2013 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, 2013 at 12:15
  • @Mitch I had seen it before, yes. It was not just some hypothetical.
    – tchrist
    Jan 3, 2013 at 12:21
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    Researching this, I think your question makes an assumption that is wrong. And that assumption is that ß is identical to a ſs ligature, which it's not. They look similar, but so does the Greek letter β. Somehow I get the feeling that this is somewhat similar to how people these days use Y when attempting to style something as old, just because the written from of þ somewhat resembles/resembled the written form of y. But I'd love to get authoritative references to sources contradicting me. Jun 3, 2020 at 9:53

6 Answers 6


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

  • @tchrist Since it would be silly to upvote my own answer, thank you for the edits! Jan 3, 2013 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, 2013 at 8:20
  • Another cool thing here is "bleſ-ſing" split across two lines at the bottom using double long S. This proves that it really was a ligature in the other words.
    – Laurel
    Jun 4 at 17:36

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, 2013 at 9:07
  • I wonder whether this is somehow related to ℔ ... Jun 3, 2020 at 9:19
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    @Hugo - Gold star for that! Many times in the past I could have made good use of this software. Must remember shapecatcher. Nov 20, 2020 at 12:38

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.

  • Wow! Very impressive find!
    – tchrist
    Feb 12, 2014 at 23:51
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    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”.
    – MetaEd
    Feb 13, 2014 at 0:07
  • @MetaEd I don't know for English, but going by the German rules for the long ſ Millersburg would be perfectly right, because it's a compound word from Millers (s is at the end) and burg. Reason however should be Reaſon and I also think Rosetta should use a ſ. Teamster seems right again, though, because of the t that follows (special rule as far as I'm aware). I wonder what the rules for the long ſ in English are/were. Jun 3, 2020 at 9:28

I'm a bit late to this, but the ß was used on the letterhead of the Clarendon Press [Preß] at Oxford in 1963. I can't say I've ever seen another example in 20th-century English.

Here's a picture:

  • I'm not convinced. Sure, this looks like an ß. But by all accounts of non-German speakers so does the Greek β. I think this is indeed a stylized ligature of ſ and s used for typographical purposes, but unrelated to ß. As far as I know the ß came about as a ligature of ſ and ʒ (the former being a long s and the latter being a z closer to its form in Fraktur). But obviously if you'd want to create a ligature between long ſ and s the above would be the outcome, given the Roman typefaces. I just wonder if there's an actual relation between what seems to be ſ-s and ſ-ʒ. Jun 3, 2020 at 9:34
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    Even the Germans didn't use the modern form of the eszett before 1903. See Wikipedia. Jun 3, 2020 at 11:26
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    @PeterShor which isn't surprising, because most of the books of the era and earlier are typeset in Fraktur. And in Fraktur there was simply no need for the modern form, which came about when the ſʒ-ligature was "ported" to Antiqua (Roman typefaces). Personally I have not seen a single German book that wasn't set in Fraktur from around 1930 and before (and I own quite a few). But they probably exist. Jun 4, 2020 at 6:46

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. Jan 2, 2013 at 16:37
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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..." Jan 2, 2013 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." Jan 2, 2013 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, 2013 at 17:26
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    It looks like @BranimirĆaćić is right, that it really was used in English at some point, and for some period.
    – tchrist
    Jan 2, 2013 at 20:52

enter image description hereHave a look at the UK channel 5 tv programme on ‘The Great Plague’ broadcast today 18 Nov 2020. Looked like an example from 1665 to me. But I’m no linguist....

Apologies. Here's the screenshot that I should have included.

  • Welcome to ELU. But I'm sorry, this isn't an answer. Answers need to be complete in themselves: you need to include a screenshot at least.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 19, 2020 at 7:56

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