Books: A Dictionary Drops 16,000 Hyphens

Hyphen, line on my page, dash in my copy. My joiner of words, my separator of syllables. Hy-phen: the breath of the lungs bursting forth from the diaphragm to loosely bite the lower lip and exhale again on two. Hy. Phen.

We never got a chance to say goodbye.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary announced this month that it has committed punctuational genocide, eliminating 16,000 hyphens from its pages. Either by combining two words into one or simply uncoupling them—severing the corpus callosum between them—editors of the dictionary's sixth edition have seen fit to knock hyphens from its pages like so many teeth from a hockey goaltender's mouth. So, ice-cream becomes ice cream and chick-pea chickpea.

But wait, how many of us were still hyphenating ice cream anyway? Does this announcement merely remove the fig-leaf (sorry, fig leaf) barely covering the fact that the Shorter OED was in major need of some long overdue updates? "The dictionary reflects the language as it's being used today," concedes Jesse Sheidlower, Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary. "In general you'll find that most dictionary editors are extremely progressive. As with any change like this, there's some point at which you want to be a little conservative. You don't want to change an entry the second there is some change in the language." (The Shorter OED is essentially the OED without its supporting quotations and most obsolete words. It was last updated in 2002; the OED itself has been updated only in part and only online.)

This particular change suggests that British English, which the OED catalogs, is becoming increasingly Americanized. How many Limeys were running scared of bumble-bees in their gardens this summer? Sheidlower stresses that the changes were based on findings made combing through British, not American, published texts. "We would use the most formal, most edited evidence," he says. "We incorporate American evidence, but the dictionary is edited in England and does represent British standards."

Bill Walsh, the copy chief at The Washington Post's national news desk, thinks the mass deletion of hyphens is a nonissue (or would that be non-issue?). "My reaction was, gosh, they were really using hyphens in those words?" he says. (The Washington Post Co. also owns NEWSWEEK, which until 1937 was called News-Week.) In his blog about copy-editing—yes, he writes a blog about copy-editing; copy editors tend to be an obsessive lot—Walsh calls the news "Some A-Do About No-Thing." The Shorter OED has eliminated only "hyphens as unnecessary and uninteresting as they are un-American," he writes. Think about it: when was the last time you used leap-frog or pigeon-hole or cry-baby?

"Americans do use such hyphens, but only as a last resort, and often in terms most unsavory," he continues. "There are giant-killers who are killers of giants as opposed to killers who are giants, and there are child-rapists who are rapists of children as opposed to rapists who are children … The hyphens that Americans get testy about in one direction or the other are the ones that link ice and cream when they're teaming up to become a single modifier—a compound modifier, a unit modifier, a call-it-what-you-will multiple-word modifier or adjective. I'd never dream of writing ice-cream as a noun all by itself, but I'd sure as hell be lining up with the three other Americans who would insist on a hyphen in ice-cream cone."

(A friendly word of advice: if you ever find yourself speaking with Bill Walsh on the topic of hyphens, it is inadvisable to get him started on the e-mail versus email debate. The main entry in the Shorter OED is unhyphenated. Walsh strenuously prefers the other for reasons he is happy to outline at length for you.)

Another reason Shiedlower gives for the hyphen kibosh is simply practical: until now the Shorter OED editors lacked software advanced enough to make sweeping changes to the copy. "Something like hyphens seems like a trivial correction to make," he says. "In fact, if you have cross-references it's a nightmare." To change 16,000 definitions and their cross-references would have been a full-time job for a full-time editorial team. A recent in-house software upgrade allowed those cross-references to be made much more efficiently, giving the team time to add 2,500 words as well. New in this edition: definitions for BDSM, beatboxing and bass-ackwards (note the hyphen).

But it seems disdain for the superfluous slash is an American trait first. "The British do hyphenate things rather more than we do," shrugs Barbara Walraff, the grammar columnist for The Atlantic. Indeed, look no further than the pages of "USA," the monumental 1938 John Dos Passos trilogy, which practically doubles as an antihyphen manifesto. A commenter on the Desktop Publishing Forum Web site points out one phrase in particular: "he wanted to make good in heman twofisted broncobusting pokerplaying stockjuggling America." Why, it's enough to make you turn into a blubbering patriotic cry-baby. Sorry, crybaby.