Posted by: episystechpubs | July 25, 2013

Editor’s Corner: The Pilcrow

Today I’d like to tell a tale of a little fellow called the “pilcrow.” You may know this young buck by one of his other names: paragraph mark, paragraph sign, paraph, alinea, blind P, or “that little thingy up there on the toolbar.” Here is his mug shot:

So where did this typographical mark come from and what does it do? The pilcrow represents a new paragraph in word processing; in copy editing, it is used to indicate where a paragraph should be added; and in the Middle Ages (according to Design Decoded, a Smithsonian blog) the pilcrow was “used to mark a new train of thought, before the convention of visually discrete paragraphs was commonplace.”
Wikipedia, by way of other dictionaries, supplies us with this additional information: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pilcrow "apparently" originated in English as an unattested version of the French pelagraphe, a corruption of paragraph; the earliest reference is c.1440. The Oxford Universal Dictionary says it may be from "pulled [plucked] crow," based on its appearance.
Possible development from capitulum to
contemporary paragraph symbol

In form, the pilcrow is understood to have originated as a letter C, for capitulum, "chapter" in Latin. This C was the paraph symbol that replaced the function of marking off paragraphs with the Greek-style paragraphos, and other symbols including the section sign. Moreover, the paraph also could be marked with a full-height sign similar to ¢ (cents) or with a double slash, originally symbols indicating a note from the scribe to the rubricator*.

*rubricator: specialized medieval scribe who received text from the manuscript’s original scribe and supplemented it with additional text in red ink for emphasis. (From the Latin rubrico, "to color red.”)
Detail showing both rubrication and
illumination in the Guttenberg bible.

Kara Church
Senior Technical Editor

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