It’s not a reversed “P.”

From the delightful World Wide Words newsletter, which I receive each week.

2. Weird Words: Pilcrow
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The paragraph sign.

The word is delightful, not least because it gives no clue at all to what it means or where it might come from. The recently revised entry for it in the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is “now chiefly historic”, which I rather dispute, since it’s easy to find examples in current books on typography and it continues to be used in standards documents that list character sets.

What makes it truly weird is that the experts are sure it’s a much bashed-about transformation of “paragraph”. This can be traced back to ancient Greek “paragraphos”, a short stroke that marked a break in sense (from “para-“, beside + “graphein”, write). The changes began with people amending the first “r” to “l” (it appeared in Old French in the thirteenth century as “pelagraphe” and “pelagreffe”). Then the folk etymologists got at it, altering the first part to “pill” and the second to “craft” and then to “crow”. The earliest recorded version was “pylcrafte”, in 1440; over the next century it settled down to its modern form.

The paragraph symbol, by the way, isn’t a reversed “P” as you might guess. It’s actually a script “C” that was crossed by one or two vertical lines. The letter stood for Latin “capitulum”, chapter.

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