Burgers and Copters, Shelves and Pants


On Translation

How rebracketing gives us new words.


From Find the Differences, a series of paintings by Peter Klashorst.

How is a helipad like a cheeseburger? It’s all about arms being legs, and having an ear.

There are words that sound right in a language and words that sound wrong, and the latter often, as the gangsters say, go on a little trip. A sound or two will be dropped like a stool pigeon with cement shoes (from the front, apheresis: [k]nife; from the back, apocope: memo[randum]), or added or modified, and the word will be domesticated. What’s easier or lazier than changing anything is to leave it as is and see it differently: a process known in life as getting a new perspective or reframing, and in linguistics as rebracketing.

Unusually for such technicalia, rebracketing is a good, solid English word, not Latin or Greek. Other terms for the same thing, false splitting or juncture loss, are also easy to grasp, and in fact each more poignant than the last. False splitting, juncture loss—they sound so lovelorn. It hurts to see things that go together come apart.

A person or thing from the German city of Hamburg, notably including a certain local-style ground-beef patty, is a Hamburger. To English speakers knowing and caring little or nothing for German origins, and well aware of a meat called ham, the word is rebracketed: [Hamburg][er] becomes [ham][burger]. Now there is a new unit of meaning in the English language—burger—combinable in forms of its own: cheeseburger, fish burger, Angus burger. (Hamburg itself, incidentally, is the product of rebracketing, in this case pleonastic fusion. Ham means “city”—surviving in place names like West Ham or suffixes, as in Birmingham; a hamlet is a little one. Burg means city, too. [Ham][burg] is Cityville.)

In the case of burgers, the rebracketing happens because something seems likely, a meat dish called ham-; in other examples, it’s because something seems unlikely. In Greek, a wing is a pteron or ptero—known to seven-year-olds from pterodactyl, the flying dinosaur. So something characterized by a wing that spins, helix or helical (Latin, meaning spiral), might naturally be called a helico-pteron, shortened by simple apocope to [helico][pter]. Since “pter” is such an unnatural sound in English, this gets rebracketed as [heli][copter], and two new units of meaning are born (police copter, helipad). A pterodactyl is arcane enough, and cool enough—just ask any seven-year-old—that the odd word survives, though even there the p goes silent. But if it’s specialized enough, even a wrong sound can live on (knish).

It seems common for one member of the newly rebracketed pair to be dominant—a burger is a hamburger; a copter is a helicopter—but sometimes the other member, however dominant it once was, can disappear altogether. A large container to hold or transport everything is something “for it all” or “for all of them”—in Latin: omnis; in the dative plural: omnibus. Today, an edition that holds every book in a series might still be an omnibus, but the motor vehicle that holds every traveler, known as a ’bus for a while, ditched the apostrophe and became a mere bus. The allness, the for-everyone-ness, that was the whole point is now gone, and half a suffix from [omn][ibus] has become a word of its own. In this way, and hopefully not many others, a bus stop, too, is like a cheeseburger.


It’s all a bit polyamorous, and it’s all in the brackets, which are a lot more fluid than they look.

Originally, a bracket was a little piece of wood or stone projecting from a wall, with a flat top, forming a shelf—basically, something that looks like the top half of a bracket symbol “ [ ”. The term spread to other jointed or angled supports: in 1627, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame, and also the compiler of several important early glossaries or dictionaries of sailor’s jargon and real usage) defined brackets as “the little carved knees to support the Galleries.” A century later, brackets were buttressing cannons: “the two ‘cheeks’ or side-pieces of a gun carriage.” All these body parts soon got mixed up with others, because the word bracket comes from a diminutive of breeches (Spanish bragueta; Latin braca, singular of bracae), and braca sounds a lot like Latin brachia (arms), not to mention branca (paw, hence an offshoot or branch).

Not that it’s entirely clear what shelves have to do with pants. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Prof. Skeat suggests that the ‘bracket’ of architecture may have been so called from its resemblance to the ‘codpiece’ of a pair of breeches (Spanish bragueta meant both ‘codpiece’ and ‘breeches’),” but to me this suggests only that Professor Skeat had bulges on the brain. The OED more soberly speculates:

a name suggested by ‘breeches’ may naturally have been applied to an apparatus consisting of two limbs set at an angle, like the ‘bracket’ of shipbuilding, or to appliances used in pairs, like the ‘brackets’ of a gun-carriage. Then, as a bracket of any kind was generally used for support, the erroneous etymology from Latin brachium ‘arm’ or its Romance derivatives presented itself, and seems to have affected the development of senses.

From brachia, French bras, came brace, a pair of arms. To “pair of arms” someone is to embrace; a brace became “that which clasps, tightens, secures, connects” in general. We have braces on teeth, braces or suspenders holding pants up, and a brassiere to hold and support (apocoped to bra). A little something that embraces the arm is a word that doubles back on itself, bracelet. And then there are the symbols that unite words or lines: braces, “ { ” and “ } ”. Was the bracket symbol named after the brace, or after a little jutting shelf, itself named after pants? To bracket is now also to group or link: the people in a tax bracket, or units of meaning bracketed and rebracketed together.

Arms and legs, knees and cheeks, wrists and teeth, breasts and pants—and what holds them up, what bulges out in front of them—you can’t stop brackets from grabbing hold of anything and everything, then letting go, splitting apart and clasping close.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.