Introduction

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — a friend recommended a book to me. The book was An Essay on Typography[1], written in 1931 by Eric Gill, one of England’s most famous modern typographers. Although it was both diminutive in size and short on actual instruction (Gill preferred polemic to practical advice), Essay was a joy to read, full of philosophical asides and painstakingly hand-cut illustrations. Most of all, though, my interest was piqued by the unusual character resembling a reversed capital ‘P’ — ‘¶’ — which peppered the text at apparently random intervals.

I started to notice the same mark in other places. It appeared on certain websites with a typographical bent, cropped up in the glossaries of typographic reference works and even adorned a button in Microsoft Word. As the otherwise comprehensive Typographic Desk Reference explained in a disappointingly perfunctory manner, this character was called the ‘pilcrow’ and once upon a time it had been used to separate paragraphs:

pilcrow
An old mark, rarely in use today, representing the beginning of a paragraph or section. Today it is used as an invisible character in word processing applications to represent a paragraph break. Also called blind P, reverse P or paragraph mark.[2]

The TDR’s curt description invited more questions than it answered. How did the pilcrow’s curious reverse-P form come about? Was it related to the letter ‘P’, as the TDR seemed to suggest, or was it something more subtle? What were the roots of its pithy, half-familiar name? What caused it to fall out of use, and having done just that, why did Eric Gill see fit to place them seemingly at random in his only published work on typography?

What, in other words, was the pilcrow all about?

A Google search yielded a list of books to read and web pages to browse. Once I’d finished with those, I had a heaping pile of notes and a list of yet more sources to be investigated. In the end, my notes on the pilcrow took in references to the birth of punctuation, the ancient Greeks, Charles the Great, medieval writing and England’s greatest 20th century typographer. I started to research other marks of punctuation — not only those, like the pilcrow, which hovered on the margins, but also everyday characters such as the ampersand (‘&’) and the hash mark (‘#’) — and what emerged was an ever more diverse set of episodes, actors and artefacts: the creation of the internet; ancient Roman graffiti; Venetian trading shorthand; Cold War double agents, and Madison Avenue at the peak of its powers. Their stories wove a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography.

These shady characters, these typographic raconteurs hiding in plain sight, were too good to miss. Shady Characters is here to bring them into the light of day.

  • [1] E. Gill, An Essay on Typography, David R Godine, 1993. <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=citeulike07-20&path=ASIN/0879239506> Bibtex

    @book{EG1993,
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      day = {01},
      howpublished = {Paperback},
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      keywords = {pilcrow, shady\_characters},
      month = jan, posted-at = {2011-01-13 13:33:16},
      priority = {0},
      publisher = {David R Godine},
      title = {An Essay on Typography},
      url = {http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=citeulike07-20\&path=ASIN/0879239506},
      year = {1993}
    }
  • [2] T. Rosendorf, “Pilcrow,” in The Typographic Desk Reference, 1st ed., Oak Knoll Press, 2009, p. 66. <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=citeulike07-20&path=ASIN/1584562315> Bibtex

    @incollection{TR2009,
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      pages = {66+},
      posted-at = {2011-01-14 01:03:37},
      priority = {0},
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      title = {pilcrow},
      url = {http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=citeulike07-20\&path=ASIN/1584562315},
      year = {2009}
    }

12 Comments

  1. Tricia
    Posted February 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Eric Gill! So, earlier this year, I found “An Essay on Typography” and was a bit obsessed. In particular, “letters are things, not pictures of things” became something of a mantra of mine at work. Bizarrely, not everyone in the world finds that quote enlightening. As such, I endured some teasing from my lawyer colleagues (none of whom, by the way, should’ve been throwing stones regarding obscure obsessions). Anyway, in short, thank you for making me feel slightly less dorky about the fact that this will soon be gracing the walls of my new London apartment: http://www.letterpressposters.co.uk/Pages/Letters.html

    Oh, and needless to say, I think the website’s great!

    • Keith Houston
      Posted February 20, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Tricia — thanks for the comment!

      “Letters are things, not pictures of things” can be applied equally to punctuation, I think. Aristophanes’ dots, for instance, are completely abstract representations of pauses in the spoken delivery of a text.

      Excellent choice of poster, by the way. I approve!

  2. iDGS
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thoroughly delightful, both in concept and execution! I eagerly await future installments, and hope they will culminate in tangible publication.

  3. VR
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Lovely idea. I’m thinking of using the article on the pilcrow with my language and translation class, full credit given. Hopefully that’s alright.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink | Reply

      Please do. It’d be great to learn more about your class — feel free to drop me a line via the Contact page!

  4. Deanna McHugh
    Posted February 27, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Your discussion of the pilcrow is absolutely fascinating, Keith, and beautifully written. I look forward with great pleasure to your next chapter.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted February 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Deanna,

      Thank you very much for saying so! I’m glad you liked it. The pressure’s mounting for me not to drop the ball on the next entry…!

  5. Matt
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink | Reply

    Maybe this is just me/my school/country/whatever, but I still commonly use the pilcrow to indicate that someone should have, but didn’t, start a new paragraph when I am editing other’s work. This seems to be a fairly standard editorial practice, so I wonder if someone can really say that it has fallen out of use.

    • Keith Houston
      Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. The pilcrow is, as you say, still used in proofreading. Most reference works do tend to dismiss it as ‘rarely used’ or something similar — I think it’s a matter of perspective.

  6. Heili
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    How refreshing! Brilliant topic! Interesting to read. :)
    H.

  7. Posted March 8, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Goodness me—am I (thanks to a friend [on Facebook {the social network, you know}]) getting in on the ground floor, more or less, of this exemplary blog? What a bit of goose!

    A blessing on every virgule that emanates from your keyboard, Mr. Houston, except for those pesky ones that appear in lieu of intended interrogation marks.

  8. Posted March 14, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for your beautiful blog with such an exciting topic! I am mad about typography (and writing implements) so I am eager to read more.

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