What is the origin of the | (pipe symbol) in typesetting?

  • 3
    While not the same, the similar looking । and ।। symbols are used like a period in Sanskrit and Hindi. – coleopterist Aug 22 '12 at 4:58
  • While this Wikipedia article may not answer your origin question directly, you still might find it interesting reading. – J.R. Aug 22 '12 at 8:39
  • 2
    @coleopterist: Y‌es, the term for it is "danda" ‌(daṇḍa). – ShreevatsaR Mar 17 '13 at 9:28

That is called the pipe.

Robert Bringhurst tells us:

Despite its importance to programmers and its presence on the standard ASCII keyboard, the pipe has no set function in typography. For drawing broken rules and boxes, a separate character from a specialized ruling font is commonly used. Also called a broken bar or parted rule.

  • It is certainly useful to physicists and mathematicians, and certainly they publish on a regular basis in print publications. I am wondering if this qualifies as "a set function in typography" or if there is an underlying specialist definition which Bringhurst is using. Also: I am neither a physicist nor mathematician, so perhaps the pipe is not the appropriate symbol in those contexts. – horatio Aug 21 '12 at 20:39
  • Sorta related, from wikipedia: "In the Geneva Bible and early printings of the King James Version, the double vertical bar is used to indicate that an alternative translation is to be found in the margin. Whenever it is used, the marginal note begins with the conjunction 'Or'.)" Sadly, no reference is given, and my copy doesn't seem to have them. – Cameron Aug 21 '12 at 20:40
  • 3
    A programmer's pipe is only one of the many avatars of this useful symbol. Please wait and see more, such as the ones coming in. It's however, not appropriate to appropriate the symbol entirely for programming use alone. – Kris Aug 22 '12 at 6:00
  • Some silly fonts a few years ago printed a pipe symbol on screen as the broken pipe when you keyed pipe on keyboard. – Chris Aug 22 '12 at 6:48

One use of the pipe symbol in typesetting is for the (usually fifth) footnote at the bottom of a page. In this case, it is doubled and called parallels (||).

Talking of the asterisk and dagger, typographers Hoefler & Frere-Jones say:

Both characters have functions in genealogy and other life sciences, where the asterisk indicates the year of birth (*1499), and the dagger the year of death (†1561). There are standard fourth-, fifth- and sixth-order reference marks, too: they are the section mark (§), parallels (||), and number sign (#), after which the cycle repeats with doubles, triples, and so on: *, †, ‡, §, ||, #, , ††, ‡‡, §§, ||||, ###, *, †††, ‡‡‡, etc. Beyond three, numbered footnotes are always preferable, even if you are David Foster Wallace.

See some examples in my answer to this question.


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