September 25, 2007

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 hyphens vanishing from the Shorter Oxford.

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 Review, 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 (though mother-fuckin(g) 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 entry (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(g) etc.

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 bang 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: solid 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.

But shit-kicker 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, cockroach-infested) require the hyphenated spelling, while fixed expressions of these types allow or require the solid spelling (babysitting, homemade).  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 or shitkicker (both are attested).]

On to the NPR showThe Bryant Park Project, put 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 their site.

The bit about hyphens is a short interview with Grammar Vandal Kate Somerville, who was reported on 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


with the comment "As if country music didn't have enough grammatical errors already."  It's all grammar, 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. Pacific time.

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 comma 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 aside 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 was shrinking 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