Wednesday, 4 April 2012
Posted by M.H. Forsyth
Para was Greek for beside. So lines that are parallel were para allelois or beside each other and those who are paranoid were para nous or, literally, beside their minds. Therefore, if you made a little mark in the margin of a Greek text to indicate a break or a new section this was written beside the text and was a para-graph.
Paragraph can, and has, been shortened and corrupted in all sorts of ways. John Florio's 1598 Worlde of Wordes has:
Paragrafo, a paragraffe, a paraffe, a pilcrow, whatsoever is contained in one sentence.
Pilcrow is still the standard term for the paragraph mark ¶ that you can sometimes see. But paraph has retained much more of the original meaning. You see a paraph is the technical name for the long flourishing extravagant line with which so many people end their signatures. Take, for example, Benjamin Franklin's signature:
Now that is a paraph and a half.
Speaking of a paraph-and-a-halfs, an academic fellow once told me that the best way to spot the weak point in a long essay is to flick through and find the longest paragraph, because that will always be where the writer was most confused. It's a rather good trick, and saves actually reading things.