“Pilcrow” is a strange word for the punctuation mark used to signify new paragraphs. Lucy, one of the letter-writers in our ongoing contest in which you address the punctuation mark of your choice, had to look it up. We did, too. Where does it come from?
The words “pilcrow” and “paragraph” may have a common ancestor. Walter William Skeat, in his Notes On English Etymology (1904), theorizes how the Latin paragraphus (“paragraph”) eventually became the word “pilcrow.”
First, paragraphus became corrupted as paragraphe.
Paragraphe became parragraffe, to which an “excrescent t,” as Skeats calls it, was added at the end.
The variant pargrafte appears in the Ortus Vocabulorum, a Latin-English dictionary printed in 1500 by the delightfully named Wynkyn de Worde. The variant pylcrafte appears in another dictionary, the Promptorium Parvulorum et Clericorum.
So pargrafte became pylcrafte.
“This is rather violent,” Skeats admits, but cites the change of r to l as a common occurrence in Indo-European languages. “Due to mere laziness,” pylcraft or pilcrafte became corrupted as “pilcrow.” Now you know!
Declare your love for the pilcrow here.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
The blog’s now treading the territories of punctuation, publications, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a brilliant brigade of culture writers, editors, and artists. You can read all about the people who've helped build Emdashes here at “Who We?” (That’s a New Yorker joke. Old habits die hard.)
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