Hyphenation in the news
These have been busy days on the hyphenation front. First, on
Sunday we got an intersection of hyphens with taboo avoidance.
Then yesterday was National Punctuation Day here in the U.S., which the
NPR news show The Bryant Park Project
celebrated by airing a brief interview about the many
from the Shorter
As for taboo avoidance, here's Grand Forks (North Dakota)
newspaper reporter Larry Lubenow interviewing jazz musician Louis
Armstrong in Grand Forks in 1957, two weeks after nine children were
barred from Central High School in Little Rock (Arkansas), as
recounted by David Margolick in the op-ed piece "The Day Louis
Armstrong Made Noise"(NYT Week in
, 9/23/07, p. 12):
Mr. Lubenow stuck initially to his
editor's script, asking Mr. Armstrong to name his favorite musician.
(Bing Crosby, it turned out.) But soon he brought up Little Rock, and
he could not believe what he heard. "It's getting almost so bad a
colored man hasn't got any country," a furious Mr. Armstrong told him.
President Eisenhower, he charged, was "two faced," and had "no guts."
For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive,
utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer:
"uneducated plow boy." The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more
his than Mr. Armstrong's.
I imagine that the expletive in question was mother-fucker
) is another possibility).
But I was surprised by the "hyphenated". Maybe things were
different 50 years ago, but these days the hyphenated spellings are
clearly the least common of the three variants (solid, hyphenated,
separated). The solid variant motherfucker
leads the pack, and this is the heading for the Wikipedia page and for
the (recent) OED
(though the cites in the entry are of all three types), then comes the
separated variant mother fucker
and the hyphenated variant trails; similarly for motherfuckin
While I was looking at such things, I checked out the noun gang-bang
. This time
Wikipedia and the OED
diverge: the Wikipedia page has solid gangbang
as its heading, but lists separated gang
as an alternative, while the OED
entry has hyphenated gang-bang
as its heading (though
again the cites in the entry are of all three types). Google shows
the same preferences for gangbang
as for motherfucker
first, the separated, then hyphenated.
[A digression. Hyphenated spellings for such compound words do
have a virtue across the board: they indicate visually that these
compounds are, structurally, both one word and two; that is, they are
words with words as parts. This simple fact is concealed in the
solid and separated spellings. That would be a matter of little
consequence if our linguistic ideology didn't take written language as
primary, as representing the "true" language. But it does, and so
people understand motherfucker
to be one word and mother fucker
to be a sequence of two words (so does the word counter on your word
processor; mine also treats the hyphenated spellings as a single word,
and I believe that's generally the case). A question about
spelling then turns into a question of whether compounds are "really"
one word or two, and passions can be aroused. Sigh.]
[Amendment 9/26/07: Ah, Topher Cooper notes that the euphemism eventually used by Lubenow, "uneducated plow boy", suggests that the original was shit-kicker
rather than mother-fucker
. As so often happens with taboo avoidance, it can be hard to figure out what the disguised expression was. In any case, the discussion of mother-fucker
above is probably beside the point, though still interesting on its own.
is interesting too. There's a class of (well-studied) compounds in English of the form N + f(V), where f(V) is the present participle, past participle, or agentive version of a verb V, and N is understood as a non-subject argument (most often, the direct object) of V. Transparent compounds of the first two types (bicycle-riding
) require the hyphenated spelling, while fixed expressions of these types allow or require the solid spelling (babysitting
). Transparent agentives are normally spelled separated in some circumstances (a coffee drinker
), hyphenated in others (my coffee-drinker friend
), while fixed agentives can be either hyphenated or solid: shit-kicker
(both are attested).]
On to the NPR show
The Bryant Park Project
together live in (surprise!) New York City from 7 to 9 a.m., is at the
end of a "pilot" stage. Yesterday's show was Pilot #28; next
Monday it debuts as a regular show. You can listen to the show on
The bit about hyphens is a short interview with Grammar Vandal
Somerville, who was reported
here when she pasted a comma into a Reebok ad that said: RUN
EASY BOSTON. She's generally a stickler for what she sees as
correctness -- in her blog yesterday, she notes with horror that during
the interview she ended a sentence with a preposition -- though she's
fairly easy-going on the hyphen question. But she's a demon about
other punctuation marks; today's blog has a reproduction of an album
cover with the legend
AND HIS LARGE BAND
IT'S NOT BIG IT'S LARGE
with the comment "As if country music didn't have enough grammatical
errors already." It's
, as we often say around here.
I suppose I have no right to complain. I was invited to do this
interview, but declined, because I'm really no kind of expert on
hyphens and because the show airs (live, remember) from 4 to 6 a.m.
I really mean it when I say I'm no kind of expert on hyphens.
Maybe it was a mistake to have posted about the Shorter Oxford
massacre. People now seem to be taking me to be Dr. Hyphen.
Why, even our own Barbara Partee has chosen to invoke me in an
on her preference for shut-out ball
over the more
popular shutout ball
I am not Dr. Hyphen. Though there must be some suitable
candidates for the title.
By the way, on the radio show, one of the hosts remarked that the Shorter Oxford
because of the removed hyphens (and others have said similar
things). Well, yes, but not by roughly 16,000 characters.
The only actual shrinking is for the hyphenated spellings that were
replaced by solid spellings. For the hyphenated spellings that
were replaced by separated spellings, a hyphen is replaced by a space,
and there is no saving (and even might be a small increase, depending
on the width of the hyphens and the spaces in question).
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 25, 2007 08:48 PM