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Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally

A few days ago, I received a remarkable book that I had ordered from Alibris. Published in 1937 and titled Meet Mr. Hyphen and Put Him in His Place, it is devoted entirely to the spelling of compound words. The author, Edward N. Teall, seems to have been a lexicographer who specialized in the spelling of compound words; a photograph of him appears at 60.

Some excerpts:
   After some years of assiduous and quite critical study of the compounding of words, I have come to the conclusion that the American way is to reduce hyphening to a minimum and either "say it fast" by solidfying or streamline the words by using the open or two-word form. The hyphen is like the old-fashioned coupling pin with which railroad cars were hooked up into trains. The comparison will not stand elaboration, but it is useful to us for the moment in sidelighting the argument.1

The old-fashioned hypheners would probably have written coupling-pin, railroad-cars, side-lighting.

(page 13)

   The compounding of words is not sport for specialists, not a freakish, fantastic field of theory; not academic, not aristocratic. It is part of the plain business of conveying ideas through writing or print. It has value in private and professional correspondence; it affects the worth, in accuracy and validity, of legislative enactments and state documents. It is important to all who write or print.
   Clean compounding is a source of strength. Slack, untidy compounding is in itself a weakness.
(page 23)

   The sum and substance, the essence, the final boiling down and sugaring of the whole matter, is this:
   Compounding is an art, not a science.
   Use the hyphen when its absence would obscure the meaning and encourage misreading or delay the progress of the reader's mind.
   This throws the problem back to choice, in most situations, between the solid and the open (two-word) forms.
   Always, strive for consistency--but never let a formal rule stand in the way of sure and easy reading of what you write or print.
(page 174)
I first encountered this book when I was in high school and a friend bought a copy at a thrift shop; we thought it was hilarious. Decades later, having struggled with only limited success with the problem of consistent spelling of compound words in English, I think the book a wonder.
(January 6, 2004)