Hyphenated

In Miami, lamenting my hotel view… of a sad white industrial rooftop… when I look up to see 50 fish hawks wheeling. We are a block from the water after all.

We have a guest blogger today, Gil Reavill, addressing the too-often-ignored subject of the hyphen. Here he is:

NEW HYPHEN YORK

For a long time New York had a little hitchhiker attached to it, a parasite that had wormed into its bowels, a hiccup, a connector, a missing link. During the 19th century the name of the greatest city in the world was oftentimes rendered “New-York.” Given that the earliest records of the city neglected the hyphen, and that the interior squiggle disappeared after 1890 or so, it’s tempting to think of the additional punctuation as a Gilded Age grace note. The New York Times spelled itself “The New-York Times” from its inception in 1851 until it dropped the hyphen in 1896. The New-York Historical Society, founded in 1809, still uses it.

The hyphen itself came into being via Johannes Gutenberg, in his monumental Bible of 1455. The printer used a uniform 42-line page, justified, the innovative movable type held in place by a rigid frame. When such a lock-step process necessitated a break in the middle of a word, Gutenberg inserted a simple signifier as the final element on the right side. It wasn’t today’s brutally horizontal staccato burp, either, but a more elegant tailored dash, rising at an 60-degree angle. Necessity proved the mother of invention, and the hyphen was born. In the Middle Ages, it was written as a double slash, like a tilted equal sign.

Why did the hyphen land in the middle of New York to begin with? Why then, in the 19th century, and not before, and not after? Who decided it should suddenly appear, and who ordained it should leave? Literary nit-pickers will recall that another 19th-century behemoth, Melville’s Moby-Dick, also employed a hyphen. Perhaps no explanation is required other than the dictates of whim, or fad, or fashion. To 19th-century eyes, New York might simply have looked better with a hyphen.

It’s a mystery that might yield to further research. Meanwhile, a simple rhyme states my personal sentiment about bygone punctuation.

GILDED AGE COUPLET

I much prefer life when

New-York had a hyphen.

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Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman, Writing

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