Thursday 11 March 2010

Parenthetical Codpieces

I don't know if you've ever noticed the two pictures of codpieces on your computer keyboard.

Once upon a time there were Gauls who spoke Gaulish until Caesar came and cut them all into three parts. One of the Gaulish words that the Gauls used to speak was braca meaning trousers, the Gauls being far more troused than the toga-ed Romans.

Anyway, from this came the early French brague meaning trousers, and when they wanted a word for a codpiece they decided to call it a braguette or little trousers, which is not to be confused with baguette meaning stick. In fact a Frenchman might brag that his baguette was too big for his braguette, but then Frenchmen will claim anything. They're braggarts (literally one who shows off his codpiece).

Braguettes were important back then, especially as part of a suit of armour. Henry VIII (who was rather concerned about his reproductive abilities) had armour like this:

So everyone carried on being happily Medieval and building cathedrals and that sort of thing. And then people started wondering what to call the big structural supports in these big supported structures. There was (I imagine) an emergency meeting of builders and linguists and they decided that these new-fangled architectural supports looked like nothing so much as big stone codpieces.

Compare, contrast, and try not to think about the dog.

Anyway, in the 1570s they decided to call them braggets. However, a fellow called Captain John Smith sailed to America, shagged a native girl called Pocahontas, came back to England, and wrote a dictionary. (Back then men were men and lexicographers diddled princesses.) More precisely, he wrote a book called A Sea-Man's Grammar and Dictionary. Captain Smith didn't call it a bragget. He called it a bracket, and the name and spelling stuck.

"I'm sorry, Pocahontas, but I've got to go back to England and write a nautical dictionary."

So now you've got an architectural thing called a bracket. But if you want to be really secure, you should use a double bracket. A double bracket looks like this:

So what are you going to call this ] bit of punctuation?

That, my child, is correct. You're going to call it a bracket, because it looks like something that looks like a codpiece. My etymological dictionary says that this happened in 1750, but I just found a usage from 1711 in William Whiston's racy classic Primitive Christianity Revived.

This earlier citation makes me a clever, clever, clever little boy.

Now look at your computer keyboard.

Top right.

Y U I O P [ ].


They're codpieces.

And so bracket can be traced back to Asterix.

[ ] -> *

Codpieces have nothing to do with cod


  1. So, in dictating to my amanuensis, I must now say (for example):

    "The implausible elements of your novel open codpiece the clitoral sweat and spitting toilet close codpiece means that although I found it entertaining I cannot open codpiece in good conscience close codpiece offer you a publishing contract."


  2. That's about the size and shape of it.

  3. I have no funny bracket-related comment to make. I just wanted to say that this post is utterly wonderful.

  4. One of your best posts to date. It made me smile at 7.45am and not many things make me smile at that hour.

  5. The amanuensis has resigned.

    I blame you.

  6. I found your post while researching this etymology. Wow. This could not have been better, honestly. Thanks for putting this up.

  7. But they're not called 'brackets', they're called 'corbels'.

  8. []-> *

    Is it my or your dirty mind that makes these symbols seem to point at anal sex?

    Love reading your blog, after having enjoyed the Etymologicon.