Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — a friend recommended a book to me. The book was An Essay on Typography1, 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:
- 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.