The pilcrow, also known as the paragraph mark or paragraph sign, has its origins in ancient manuscripts where it was used to mark a new paragraph or section of text.

The derivation of its name is as convoluted as its shape. It originally comes from the Greek paragraphos (para, “beside” and graphein, “to write”), which led to the Old French word paragraph. Somehow, the word transformed into the Middle English pylcrafte and eventually became the “pilcrow”.

But the pilcrow wasn’t always the way to mark breaks in the narrative of text.

Ancient Greeks used a horizontal line entering from the left margin to indicate the break. By the 2nd century AD that had been replaced by a “K” as in kaput (Latin for head). Fast forward a thousand years to the 12th century and the K had been replaced by a “C” for capitulum (Latin for little heads, and the origin of the word “chapter”).

Then in the Middle Ages “rubricators” (Latin for “to colour red”), the scribes who would hand draw various symbols onto printed text to indicate breaks in text, would draw these Cs within the indented space left for that purpose by the printers. Sometimes they would fill in these Cs and embellish them with one or two thin vertical lines. These shapes would eventually develop into the pilcrow we know today.

With the ad­vent of the print­ing press, the volume of prin­ted doc­u­ments to be rub­ric­ated grew ex­po­nen­tially. Sadly for pilcrow fans, rubricators could not draw fast enough to meet publishers' deadlines, and books would often end up being sold with the beginnings of the paragraphs left blank.

The pil­crow be­came a ghost, and the in­den­ted para­graph was born in its stead.

These days the pilcrow is mostly used as a symbol to indicate the beginning of a new paragraph, especially in legal documents, manuscripts, editing software and some word processing programs … where pilcrows appear as hidden symbols.

The pil­crow never quite re­covered from its humiliation at the hands of the print­ing press, and des­pite oc­ca­sional celebrity ap­pear­ances as a para­graph mark (such as in Eric Gill’s seminal 1931 book An Es­say on Ty­po­graphy), it re­mains largely ali­en­ated from its tra­di­tional role.

Story Idea: Rosemary White




1. Pilcrow. Credit: Smithsonian Magazine.
2. Pilcrows and other paragraph marks in Edwin Lewis’s History of the English Paragraph (1894).
3.. Excerpt of a page from Villanova, Rudimenta Grammaticæ showing several pilcrow signs in the form common at that time, circa 1500.
4. Opening page of Genesis from the Doves Bible, Doves Press, 1902
5. Rubricator pilcrow marking in red
6. Book: An Essay on Tyography, Eric Gill, 1931
Video: "What does that backwards P-symbol mean?" BBC Ideas, 2023
8. Hidden pilcrow shows paragraph breaks in modern word processing
Pilcrow in typefaces (left to right): Neue Helvetica, Arial, Consolas, Adobe Garamond Pro, Baskerville Old Face, Palatino Linotype and Gentium Plus



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