A post from Shady Characters

An author asks: what is the ‘§’ called?

First, thank you to everyone who came along to the Waterstones Christmas Cracker on Thursday! It was great to see so many familiar faces there, and to meet some new ones too. James Robertson, who read from his new novel The Professor of Truth, asked me a question as were were packing up to leave: what is the name of the ‘§’ symbol?

I’ve always known it as the section sign, or section symbol; Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style)1 and Theodore Rosendorf (The Typographic Desk Reference),2 my go-to typographic references, agree. It seems odd, though, that this eminently shady character has no other name. Have you come across any other names for the pilcrow’s partner in crime?

1.
R. Bringhurst, “section,” in The Elements of Typographic Style : version 3.2, Hartley and Marks, Publishers, 2008, p. 317. ↩︎
2.
T. Rosendorf, “section,” The Typographic Desk Reference, p. 74, 2009. ↩︎

14 comments on “An author asks: what is the ‘§’ called?

  1. Comment posted by Joel on

    I’ve always heard it referred to as “double esses,” and it wasn’t until college until I’d heard it called the “section sign.”

  2. Comment posted by Erik on

    It’s a symbol I used heavily (as a mathematical symbol) in my PhD thesis, and many other people who use it in the same way I did referred to it as “paragraph” which always drove me nuts because to me, the “paragraph symbol” is the pilcrow. But sadly that name is out there. I always called it the “section symbol”.

  3. Comment posted by Brian on

    The official Unicode name is “SECTION SIGN”, and includes the note “paragraph sign in some European usage”. No other information, sadly.

  4. Comment posted by Przemyslaw on

    For me it’s a paragraph (Pol. paragraf) . In Polish you can “sit like a paragraph” when your position on sofa is awkward. At least my mom says so. ;)

  5. Comment posted by Nadja on

    If we stick to English, I only know it as a section sign. It’s a bit confusing that it’s also referred to as a paragraph sign, but that seems to have a linguistic background:
    In German for example (an apparently it’s the same way in Polish ;-)
    section=Paragraph
    paragraph=Absatz

    Go figure :-)

  6. Comment posted by Phillip Patriakeas on

    Though I’d be surprised if you hadn’t already stopped by there, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_sign) suggests the alternate names “double S”, “hurricane”, “sectional symbol” (and, presumably, “sectional sign”), and the somewhat whimsical “legal doughnut”. It also posits an origin as a digraph of two S’s, an abbreviation of the Latin “signum sectiōnis”.

  7. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

    Thank you all for the comments! I hadn’t known about the paragraph/section dichotomy that the ‘§’ suffers from — that’s an unfortunate mix-up if ever I heard one. As far as names go, it looks like “section sign” or “signum sectiōnis” is the winner for now.

    Thanks again!

  8. Comment posted by Bill M on

    I’ve always heard it called the section or subsection symbol.

    First time I heard it can also be use in place of the pilcrow for paragraph symbol.

  9. Comment posted by Rondina Muncy on

    I was surprised to find that the character for paragraph (¶) is confused with the character for section (§). The section sign is commonly used to reference legal statutes and I use it in citations on a regular basis. So, I pulled out Black’s Law Dictionary (4th Ed.)–a standard reference when studying early legal documents. It did not contain a definition for the symbol. I next went to my mother’s old Oxford Universal Dictionary where everything I ever wanted to know about a word seems to be. (C. T. Onions, Oxford, 1933.) Under part 6 of “Section” it reads: “Printing. The sign § orig. used to introduce the number of a ‘section’; subseq. used also as a mark of reference to notes in the margin or at the foot of a page. Also called s.-mark. 1728.”

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Rondina — thanks for the comment. I took the liberty of converting your underscored text into italics; if you want to do this in future, you can indicate italicised text thus: <em>italic text</em>.

      I’ll add a note to the comment form to make this clearer in future.

      Thanks again!

  10. Comment posted by Erik on

    I don’t think anyone confuses the symbols ¶ and §. It’s just that the name “paragraph symbol” sometimes gets used for both. I think that Nadja might be right and that it may spring originally from a translation confusion.

  11. Comment posted by Rondina Muncy on

    Erik, Ann stated that she believed it was a “paragraph symbol.” Her link to Google Images brought up pictures of both signs which indicated to me that there was some confusion as to the actual symbol, not its name. I may have misunderstood her.

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