What are the ( ) { } [ ] and ⟨ ⟩? When should we use them and where they come from?

Though these odd symbols( ), [ ], { }, and ⟨ ⟩regularly appear on our books and screens, they all have odd, unexpected origins. The most familiar of these unusual symbols is probably the ( ), called parentheses. One of them ( is called a parenthesis, and as a pair the plural are parentheses. Parenthesis literally means “to put beside” from the Greek roots par-, -en and thesis. Grammatically, they behave kind of like commas and serve to set aside a subordinate part of the sentence or discussion.

(Watch for their use in this blog post!) The use of parentheses in printed English dates back to at least 1572.

Both { } and [ ] are types of brackets. The word bracket is related to the French braguette from the name for codpiece armor, that audacious costumery that bears resemblance to the architectural feature the bracket, among other things. The word bracket still applies to shelf supports that resemble the symbol, ]. The word originally came from the Old Germanic word for pants, breeches.

(Want to know about the most common current use of parentheses: emoticons? Learn about those funny figures here.)

Square brackets ([ ]) are used inside of parentheses to denote something subordinate to the subordinate clause. Here’s an example from the 13th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style: “During a prolonged visit to Australia, Gleuk and an assistant (James Green, who was later to make his own study of a flightless bird [the kiwi] in New Zealand) spent several difficult months observing the survival behavior of cassowaries and emus.”

{ } have a variety of names; they are called alternately braces, curly brackets or squiggly brackets. Commonly today, they signify hugging in electronic communication. The last confusing symbol, ⟨ ⟩, is called the chevron. The word originally meant rafter in Old French and was likely derived from the Latin slang term caprion, meaning goat. The symbol does somewhat resemble the hind legs of those capering creatures. Today it is most often used in complex math problems. All of these parenthese, brackets and chevrons are also used in computer science and programming in ways that us laypeople may never understand.

Do you use these symbols very often? What other glyphs and typographical symbols confuse you?