Today, you’re most likely to run into the pilcrow—colloquially known as the paragraph mark and seen at the right—in Microsoft Word. If you’re anything like me, you stumbled across it quite by accident, and then spent the better part of an hour digging through menus in an attempt to make it go away for the rest of your life. That’s a shame, because this curious little mark has a lot of history.
I’ll admit that since my first run-in with a pilcrow I haven’t given it much thought, aside from finding it bemusingly antiquated. In this age of computer-aided word processing, it’s not often that you need one as a visual cue for a line break. But what I didn’t know is that it was the evolution of the pilcrow that lead to something so “obvious” as line breaks. And like most of typographical advancements of the last few millenia, the pilcrow was designed as a tool to help in reading and copying the Bible:
Monastic scriptoria worked on the same principle as factory production lines, with each stage of book production delegated to a specialist. A scribe would copy out the body of the text, leaving spaces for a ‘rubricator’ to later embellish the text by adding versals (large, elaborate initial letters), headings and other section marks as required. Taken from the Latin rubrico, ‘to colour red’, rubricators often worked in constrasting red ink, which not only added a decorative flourish but also guided the eye to important divisions in the text. In the hands of the rubricators, ‘C’ for capitulum came to be accessorised by a vertical bar, as were other litterae notabiliores in the fashion of the time; later, the resultant bowl was filled in and so ‘¢’ for capitulum became the familiar reversed-P of the pilcrow….
As the capitulum’s appearance changed, so too did its usage. At first used only to mark chapters, it started to pepper texts as a paragraph or even sentence marker so that it broke up a block of running text into meaningful sections as the writer saw fit. … Ultimately, though, the concept of the paragraph overrode the need for efficiency and became so important as to warrant a new line[†] — prefixed with a pilcrow, of course, to introduce it.
¶ The pilcrow’s name — pithy, familiar and archaic at the same time — moved with the character during its transformation from ‘C’ for capitulum to independent symbol in its own right. From the Greek paragraphos, or paragraph mark, came the prosaic Old French paragraphe, which subsequently morphed first into pelagraphe and then pelagreffe. By 1440 the word had entered Middle English, rendered as pylcrafte — its second syllable perhaps influenced by the English crafte, or ‘skill’ — and from there it was a short hop to its modern form.