If I had known that the mainstream media would take such a sudden interest in language stories, I'd have thrown together a new book or something. When we're not hearing about the quotation-marks blog or National Punctuation Day, we're hearing about the supposedly shocking decision by the editors of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to do away with a whole bunch o' hyphens.
Bill Hyphen Walsh must be aghast at this travesty, right? Well, no. Bill Hyphen Walsh issues blustery pronouncements about American English. These are British hyphens, hyphens as unnecessary and uninteresting as they are un-American, hyphens that link adjectives to the nouns they modify. The Brits get all worried that you might think a dressing gown is a gown that is dressing, and so they write dressing-gown to make it clear that it's a gown of the dressing variety. We'd never write dressing-gown, and not only because we have the superior term bathrobe.
Americans do use such hyphens, but only as a last resort, and often in terms most unsavory. 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. But we're sensible enough to know without the aid of a hyphen that a mountain climber isn't a climber that's a mountain.
Look at the examples given in the stories about the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary's supposed apostasy and you'll find not a single example of a hyphen that's been used in American English in the past half-century. Just as we used ice-berg a billion years ago, the SOED until last week used bumble-bee and chick-pea and cry-baby and fig-leaf and hobby-horse and ice-cream and leap-frog and log-jam and low-life and pigeon-hole and pin-money (huh?) and pot-belly and test-tube and touch-line (huh?) and water-bed and water-borne. Check the current Webster's New World, the official dictionary of virtually all American newspapers, or pretty much any recent dictionary of American English. You won't find any of those hyphens.
I'm not quite sure why the Limeys wrote ice-cream until a few days ago, but, of course, we Yanks eat ice cream. Unless, unless, unless -- and here's where we get into the kind of hyphen that inspires arguments and punctuational nicknames -- we're talking compound modifiers. 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. Some -- well, most -- would insist that there's no chance anybody would read the hyphenless ice cream cone as meaning a cream cone of ice rather than a cone of ice cream, and they'd be right. And so what? Structure is structure.
Some -- well, most -- would say the same thing about orange juice salesman or even high school student, and some -- well, most -- had better not come crying to me when they're suddenly confronted by a juice salesman who's orange or, unlikely as it may seem, a school student who's high. In fact, the Shorter OED's editor, Angus Stevenson, makes it clear that he's not striking compound-modifier hyphens. Reuters says:
But hyphens have not lost their place altogether. The Shorter OED editor commended their first-rate service rendered to English in the form of compound adjectives, much like the one in the middle of this sentence.And then there's e-mail vs. email, but that's a unique case.
"There are places where a hyphen is necessary," Stevenson said.
"Because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity."
But enough about a non-story. Or is it a nonstory? Now, there's a more interesting hyphen argument.