Riddle me this: What do iceboxes, typewriters and videotapes have in common?
Outdated technology, right?
OK, but sorry, trick question. They are also compound words: video plus tape.
English is chock-full of them. We open our mouths and hillbilly, inbox, wanderlust and Deadhead just pop out. Such compounds with no in-between spaces are matched by as many spaced-out ones. Think sweet tooth, flash drives, heavy metal and couch potatoes, along with all the hyphenated adjectives, from knuckle-dragging, high-tech, mind-boggling, and gender-bending, to off-the-wall.
New compounds created to express new realities, podcast, carbon footprint, post-truth, climate change, and goblin mode, have dominated annual Word-of-the-Year lists.
But our English compounds aren’t as hunky-dory elsewhere. Just try asking a garçon for the French equivalent of “kneejerk” or your amigo for “downside” in Spanish. They can translate these compounds, no prob, just not as naturally with glued-together words.
Don’t be a numskull and try this on a German Kerl, though. He’ll ask you to try Englishing the 62-letter trainwreck of a word that is too long to print in these narrow columns. The single German word refers to what we need sixteen words to express: “law regarding the delegation of supervisory duties for the supervision of cattle marking and beef labeling.”
According to Mark Twain, “Some German words are so long they have a perspective. These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.”
His extended joke, “The Awful German Language,” has fun with our German cousins’ weakness for such alphabetical parades. A Mannheim newspaper story is translated as, “In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called ‘The Wagoner’ was downburnt.”
The Key Peninsula News may have its faults, but at least you’ll never read a sentence like that here. Except, that is, in “The Other Side.”
If you are 12 years old and speak English, you have fun repeating mega-word nonsense like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
To play Costard in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” you’ll have to train yourself to exhale Shakespeare’s breath-defying word, honorificabilitudinitatibus without deflating into a wrinkle-skinned balloon on stage. King Lear rants in storm-lashed compound mouthfuls: “You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires / Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts / Singe my white head!”
The oldest Old English we have is Caedmon’s seventh-century Christian hymn. It’s full of compound words like hefaenricaes (heaven’s kingdom) and Wuldurfadur (Glorious Father).
Fast forward to 1932, and John Dos Passos mines the same motherlode of English vocabulary in “The Big Money,” stitching together words unencumbered by commas or hyphens. “He wanted to make good in heman twofisted broncobusting pokerplaying stockjuggling America.”
And then there’s that witch hunt.
Our country bumpkin Elizabethan redneck ancestors, long before they were civilized enough to hold teacups with a pinkie finger sticking out, abused their neighbors with strings of insult-pearls, “You onion-eyed, toad-spotted maggot-pie,” being one of the few that can be printed in a family-friendly newspaper like this.
In today’s anything-goes American English, a high-tech, white-collar, blue-state, big-city, white-flight, Starbucks-iced-brown-sugar-oat milk-shaken-espresso-sipping urban hipster who’s just moved out to the Key Peninsula can look down his sophisticated nose at us birdbrained, hen-pecked, lily-livered, chicken-hugging, cockeyed countryfolk. And that’s cooping us up in just one corner of the barnyard.
Pretty soon though, Mr. Shut-the-Door-I’m-In will have put down roots and proudly identify horsetails, kingfishers, thimbleberries, goldfinches, buttercups, licorice ferns, honeysuckles and dogwoods to the amazement of his visitors with 206, 415 and 310 phones in their pockets. Next thing you know, Johnny C. Lately will be complaining on Facebook about how city folks with their urban values are ruining the virtues of the old KP.
Myth brings us to the Byzantine complexities of the correct use of hyphens in English compound words.
Far be it from me, slapdash typo-generator and error-machine that I am, to profane the priestly rites of punctuation cults. Style manuals have head-spinning catechisms of dos and don’ts for hyphenating and not hyphenating words. The kabbalah of punctuation rules makes conspiracy theories about George Soros sound like the very models of straightforward simplicity.
Time passes, and words change. So have the rules governing the hyphenation of English compound words. In the 1990s, a Comma Queen instructed me that I must keyboard e-mail, not email. In browbeaten submission, I used e-mail for a while, but when I upgraded from the old “You’ve Got Mail!” account on AOL, I dropped the affectation.
It was an earth-shaking crisis in 2007 when — no, not the subprime mortgage crash and the Great Recession — the Oxford English Dictionary announced it was dropping the hyphenation of 16,000 previously hyphenated English compounds. For old-school fussbudgets, it was a Left-Behind apocalypse.
Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson stoked the flames of my great-grandparents’ anxieties about all those recent Irish-American, German-American, and Italian-American immigrants. During World War I, nativists of the day used dog whistles like “A hyphenated-American is not an American at all.”
Nowadays cynical rabble-rousers are telling us to worry about our Great Replacement by hordes of new un-American, hyphenated-Americans.
Newspapers, including this one, mostly followed the Associated Press Style Guide and dropped those ethnic hyphens in 2019, but with or without them, we still segregate ourselves according to the compound-word categories of contemporary identity politics: African American, Mexican American, Muslim American, Asian American, Native American, Real American.
Ironically, the punctuation mark invented in Ancient Greece as a bridge to show that two separate words belonged together is now a border wall keeping us apart.
Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.
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