Etymology of Parenthesis and Bracket

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

programing languages uses a lot parenthesis and brackets. Especially lisp, lots of brackets. [see Emacs Lisp Basics]

I think the UK terminology is more logical.

why with the special case of a mouseful “parenthesis”? They are all brackets, just different shape: round, square, curly. Makes much better sense.

When you write a lot documentation for programing languages, you wonder, why is parenthesis called parenthesis?

and, here's the etymology.

Etymology of Parenthesis

1540s, “words, clauses, etc. inserted into a sentence,” from Middle French parenthèse (15c.), from Late Latin parenthesis “addition of a letter to a syllable in a word,” from Greek parenthesis, literally “a putting in beside,” from parentithenai “put in beside,” from para- “beside” (see para- (1)) + en- “in” + tithenai “put, place” (see theme).

Sense extension by 1715 from the inserted words to the curved brackets that indicate the words inserted.

[etymology of parenthesis]

so, “parenthesis” traces like this:

  1. “put in beside”
  2. “addition of a letter to a syllable in a word”
  3. parenthesis

and the root of “bracket” is something like this:

  1. in pairs
  2. garment for the legs and trunk
  3. knee pants
  4. codpiece armor
  5. architectural support
  6. bracket

So, this means, for programers, if you focus on notion of footnotes or side-notes, then you'd want to say, “parenthesis”, as in, “parenthetically speaking”.

If your focus is on the syntactic structure, as in programing languages, such as lisp, then, you'd want to say, “round brackets”.

bracket (n.)

1570s, bragget, “architectural support,” probably from Middle French braguette “codpiece armor” (16c.), from a fancied resemblance of architectural supports to that article of attire (Spanish cognate bragueta meant both “codpiece” and “bracket”), diminutive of brague “knee pants,” ultimately from Gaulish *braca “pants,” itself perhaps from Germanic (compare Old English broc “garment for the legs and trunk;” see breeches). The architectural meaning also might reflect the “breeches” sense, on the notion of two limbs or of appliances used in pairs.

The typographical bracket is first recorded 1750, so called for its resemblance to double supports in carpentry (a sense attested from 1610s). Senses affected by Latin brachium “arm.”

bracket (v.)

1797, of printed matter, “to enclose in brackets,” from bracket (n.). Also, “to couple or connect with a brace” (1827), also figurative, “to couple one thing with another” in writing (1807). Artillery rangefinding sense is from 1903, from the noun (1891) in the specialized sense “distance between the ranges of two shells, one under and one over the object.” Related: Bracketed; bracketing. In home-building and joinery, bracketed is attested by 1801.

[etymology of brackets]