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I have found several sources (Wikipedia, Eats Shoots & Leaves) that claim Erasmus was the first person to use parentheses (also known as brackets). He supposedly called them lunulae (because they looked like moons). But I can't find any source citations.

Can anyone provide more information about this supposed fact? In which book did Erasmus first use them? What year was the book published?

The reason I want to know is that Erasmus lived (and died) in the town where I live (Basel, Switzerland). I am trying to determine if parentheses were invented here in Basel.

Extra upvotes for answers with excessive amounts of bracket usage.

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    By 'several' you mean two and we can further reduce that to one because the wikipedia article only cites Lynne Truss's book.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Oct 21, 2011 at 13:11
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    @z7sg Ѫ And that one can be reduced to zero because it doesn't claim Erasmus invented anything, only coined a term; see my answer.
    – Hugo
    Oct 21, 2011 at 13:54
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    @FumbleFingers, you left out a parenthesis there. Or left a colon hanging. Unless that was one of those "refinements".
    – JeffSahol
    Oct 21, 2011 at 14:35
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    @JeffSahol No, it's one of those new-fangled merged smiley/parenthesis wotsits.
    – Hugo
    Oct 21, 2011 at 14:59
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    @Hugo: Absolutely. We're taking punctuation to levels Erasmus never even dreamed of! Oct 21, 2011 at 16:50

4 Answers 4

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Sorry, but according a (1993) book (Pause and effect: an introduction to the history of punctuation in the West (by Malcolm Beckwith Parkes)) Erasmus didn't invent parentheses (but he gave them a nice name).

A form of parenthesis had already been used in (a manuscript called) De nobilitate legum et medicinaue (from 1399) that looked like a Γ and >.

In a (1428) copy of (Cicero's) Epistolae ad familares, the marks were paired off as <>.

They subsequently became the familiar round brackets (()) (as recommended by (Gaparino) Barzizza (1359-1431) (in (his) Doctrina punctandi)).


Edit: Furthermore, if you re-read Wikipedia you'll see it says (citing (Lynne) Truss):

Desiderius Erasmus coined the term lunula to refer to the rounded parentheses (), recalling the round shape of the moon.

He coined the term lunula. It makes no claim of (Erasmus (or anyone else) inventing the mark.

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    +1 but I fear OP's going to be a bit miffed now it turns out all his homeboy did was invent a word for brackets that we don't even use anyway! Oct 21, 2011 at 13:58
  • @FumbleFingers Seconded.
    – user11550
    Oct 21, 2011 at 15:28
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    I ain't even mad bro. upvoted and accepted. Also, now I have a new book to read :)
    – Jen S.
    Jun 10, 2013 at 7:49
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(Further to Hugo's answer,) John Lennard (a linguistic scholar) talks about these in his book, The poetry handbook and (in a footnote) says that Erasmus coined the term in the year 1531. My understanding (from the Wikipedia article on him) is that by this time he was indeed living in Basel - but (as Hugo notes) here he coined the term lunula but did not first use brackets.

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  • (The footnote in the book I linked to says: "Erasmus, De recta Latini Grecisque sermonis pronuntiatione (Basel, Froben, 1530), sig. n5" (which is close enough).)
    – Hugo
    Oct 21, 2011 at 14:26
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    @Hugo Ah, so it does. But since the OP asked for those details in the question ("In which book did Erasmus first use them? What year was the book published?") if we have that information it should go in the text of an answer, not as a link.
    – Waggers
    Oct 21, 2011 at 15:16
  • You're right, I got so carried away with (excessive) bracket use, I missed that part of the question. (I was just adding the name of the book in the last comment.)
    – Hugo
    Oct 21, 2011 at 15:22
  • @Waggers thanks for the research. (Unfortunately) I can only check one answer as correct, so I checked Hugo's.
    – Jen S.
    Oct 21, 2011 at 17:36
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They go back as far as the inverted "Nun" letters bracketing certain passages in the TaNa"Ch (Hebrew Scripture): Genesis 6-; Psalms 107; Numbers 10:35-36. Later scholarly readers of these ancient texts in their original ported this into their European languages, in shapes like <> and () that worked with Latin-derived letters' form.

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Just to add: Salutati visually translated the classical figure of digression "parenthesis" or "interpositio" by inventing the typographical mark which would bear the same name. So the stylistic device of inserting additional stuff into the main thing has been around since Cicero and Quintilian.

In the Renaissance, parenthesis referred to three things: the literary device, as well as the words within the typographical marks (parentheses or round brackets).

Also, just as a quite interesting aside, Salutati added the early parentheses by hand into the manuscript copied or noted down by his assistant. It was so important for him to control the flow of the sentence that he actually made the effort to read the text and sequeeze the marks in himself. Punctuation was considered that powerful that the man himself needed to do it, or was allowed to do it, not his secretary!

P.P.S. Salutati was a punctuation fan and also introduces the first exclamation mark into the 1399 manuscript (though he didn't invent it).

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