October 11, 2007

hyphen, shmyphen

So the shorter OED eliminated 16,000 hyphens in its newest edition.

What’s getting the heave are most hyphens linking the halves of a compound noun. Some, like “ice cream,” “fig leaf,” “hobby horse” and “water bed,” have been fractured into two words, while many others, like “ bumblebee,” “crybaby” and “pigeonhole,” have been squeezed into one.

I beg to disagree. Morphologically, fig leaf is still one word, no matter if it is recognized as such by Microsoft Word. The plural is fig leaves (not figs leaves), there's only one stressed syllable, and it can take only one determiner (the fig leaf, not the fig the leaf). So, what's the point of hyphens in the first place?
They’re records of how the language changes, and in the old days, before the Shorter Oxford got into the sundering business, they indicated a sort of halfway point, a way station in the progress of a new usage. Two terms get linked together — “tiddly-wink,” let’s say, or “cell-phone” — and then over time that little hitch is eroded, worn away by familiarity. In a few years, for example, people will be amused to discover that email used to be e-mail.

Yes, there may be instances where a hyphen can help avoid ambiguities ha-ha!), but bear in min("A slippery-eel salesman, for example, sells slippery eels, while a slippery eel salesman takes your money and slinks away." d that ambiguity is part of every human language. If you buy blue socks and towels with stripes, no hyphen in the world will help you figure out if the socks have stripes and the towels are blue. That's why we have syntax!

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