What's in a name?


So, here’s a secret about me… ! isn’t actually my favourite sign. I love it, but no. My favourites are (and I’m not ashamed to say so) BRACKETS! Or parentheses, depending from which side of the Atlantic you’re reading.

Brackets (I mean precisely those, round half-open circles the words you’re reading are standing in) were my first love, and I’ve been intrigued by them for more than ten years now. I love how they add extra scaffolding to the sentence, to the thought. I love how that extra has permission to do other stuff, to sometimes totally contradict what’s being said in the “official” host sentence. 

I love how the bracket allows our thought to flow more freely and naturally. We don’t think in straightforward clean neat and tidy sentences. We think in convoluted circles and meandering alleys, foding in upon themselves. Brackets accommodate for that without losing track and forward momentum.

I love that subversiveness, that little radical secret at the heart of the matter. I love how we think we can just take the bracket out and the sentence won’t fall apart, but actually the sentence’s all the worse for it. 

And I also just love their shape.

In his De recta pronuntiatione of 1536, Erasmus called round brackets lunulae, little moons, otherwise known as parentheses. That which is put (thesis) in (en) beside (para) the main stuff of the sentence

Nota bene: parenthesis is the bracket overall, the words seen as an entity held between the two convex concave signs. And parentheses refers to the actual typographical characters.

The signs date back to that fateful manuscript of 1399, De nobilitated legum et medicinae by Coluccio Salutati, the biggest punctuation fan (apart from yours truly!). Coluccio, a humanist and lawyer from Renaissance Florence, wrote a humorous defence of law over medicine in reply to Bernadinus Florentinus’s eulogy of medicine. 

Coluccio dictated the words to his secretary (or the secretary copied them from a pervious source), but Coluccio (and this is crucial and fascinating) enters punctuation by hand throughout the manuscript. He adds the first ! (translating the description by Alpoleio a good fifty years earlier into the first instance of the shape we know of) – and he squeezes brackets between the words to section off matter within the sentence.

This was both radically new, and not new at all: the stylistic device of the parenthesis had been known and used since antiquity; Roman orators like the revered Cicero and Quintilian called it interpositio, “putting something between” the main words. But Coluccio was the first person to transform the rhetorical device of composition into an actual visual sign on the page. And this tendency to actualise practises that had been around for a while is precisely what makes the Renaissance such a fertile period for punctuation (new signs entered the scene; existing signs settled into their shapes and uses of today). 

Punctuation makes text easier, faster, and safer to read, reducing the time for deciphering and reducing miscommunication (at least, that’s it’s nominal task). The purpose of writing in the Renaissance was to persuade and any means necessary for this aim was fine. Punctuation was fine. Feeling was fine. Pausing was fine. Hence Coluccio’s attention to detail, returning to his own text and manually entering such minutely orchestrating traffic signs as ! and ( ).

Coluccio’s brackets were pointy at first, but soon settled into the round brackets that spread all over Renaissance pages. And languages.

In the UK, ( ) are brackets, round brackets, or parentheses, and [ ] are square brackets or crotchets.

In the US, ( ) are parentheses, and [ ] are brackets.

{ } are braces in both the UK and US, also known as curly brackets, swirly brackets, or twirly brackets. I’m absolutely in love with this creative spinning on of name based on rhyme sound, but wait for it: some people call them birdie bracket (makes sense considering the rhyme),  and from then following gullwings, seagulls, and (somewhat unaccountably) squirelly brackets. Perhaps because of the shape reminiscent of a bushy tail? Or a pair of sharp teeth? Little paws holding a nut? Humm. Oh, and also moustache brackets, which makes LOTS of sense! You can just see the pomaded-up twirls of hair drooping from each side of the nose… { }

⟨ ⟩ are called angle brackets, pointy brackets, diamond brackets, tuples, chevrons, or guillemets when  doubled « »,  (via the French).

⸤ ⸥ 「 」 there are corner brackets, ⟦ ⟧ double square brackets, and (what a cool name!)〔 〕tortoise shell brackets

Whatever you call your bracket and whichever shape you choose, give it some love today! Brackets are the beams and the hinges of the sentences. And the exciting dreamy paths into the thicket of the mind. 

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