Pilcrow

When I first excitedly told Julie about my initial investigation into the pilcrow, she smiled, knowingly, and said, “Oh it’s one of your rabbit holes.” In the two years of supervising me in the MFA programme she’s probably quite accustomed to my crazed enthusiasms, certainly enough to recognise them as the rabbit-holes I follow in the hopes of glimpsing that elusive Wonderland.  There’s been many an occasion where I’ve told her that although I don’t know what it means yet, I’ve stumbled upon another morsel, a little something, like a trail of breadcrumbs.

I like things that have a story, or history, but one that points in many directions. I like things that are suggestive, or secret, unknown, or invisible.  The things I collect are things that could just be ordinary, except there is something that makes them not… they glow with an unacknowledged importance, an unrevealed significance; they whisper to me, and ask me to recognise them.

I found the pilcrow by accident, which is to say, it has been there before me, unnoticed, until suddenly it wasn’t.  And if you are unfamiliar with the word ‘pilcrow’ don’t worry, I was completely in the dark too.  It’s a typographical symbol, which you may well recognise even if you don’t know what to call it, as I didn’t initially (it’s an interesting task googling something you don’t know the name of, but the internet will find it for you eventually).

The pilcrow is this:

Yes, it’s that handy little symbol you can find when you’re word-processing and you need to figure out how many spaces you’ve put in and where.  With the click of a button it can appear and disappear.  Now you see it, now you don’t. Hey presto, abracadabra!

I loved it for its beautiful vanishing act, but I loved it even more when I researched further. By far the best source of information I found was Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The secret life of punctuation, symbols & other typographical marks (I requested it from the public library and showed so much nerdy excitement about reading it that I completely bewildered the librarian I picked it up from: “Well, I guess if you’re into that sort of thing” she’d said, smiling politely but dubiously).

The pilcrow is not a mere typographic curiosity, useful only for livening up a coffee-table book on graphic design or pointing the way to a paragraph in a mortgage deed, but a living character with its roots in the earliest days of punctuation. Born in ancient Rome, refined in medieval scriptoria, appropriated by England’s most controversial modern typographer, and finally rehabilitated by the personal computer, the pilcrow is intertwined with the evolution of modern writing. It is the quintessential shady character.

(Houston, 2013, p. 3).

From Houston’s book I learned that the pilcrow evolved from a C (which stood for capitulum) that indicated the beginning of a section or chapter. The ornamentation of the C over time slowly turned it into the pilcrow symbol (Houston, 2013, p. 13).

During the Middle Ages, when monastic scribes were reproducing handwritten scriptures, the pilcrow was considered special enough that it was added subsequently by a specialist rubricator (who inked the headings and initial letters and so on in red). So the scribe would ink all the black parts, the main text block, but left spaces where the red characters could be added (p. 14).

Later when the printing press was invented, the pilcrow was still important enough that it was added in by hand, the type-setters would leave a space for it just as the scribes did.  Only this is where the pilcrow began to vanish.  The rubricators just couldn’t keep up with the pace of the press, and so the convention became that a paragraph is indicated with a blank space or an indent… an empty place that was waiting for a never-to-be-added pilcrow (p. 16).

The pilcrow indicates a transition of ideas, so it could be said to be symbolic of a shift in direction, or new thought, perhaps even a revelation. But its function is that of separating paragraphs, so maybe it more aptly symbolises a brief pause, a breath, the heartbeat before the punchline.

From its heyday of being highlighted in red, the pilcrow is now spectral. It has a position, but that position is filled with a blank. It haunts the spaces in-between. It may just be the ultimate rabbit-hole.

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