People used to say “Ouch,” said Jack over lunch, “now they say “Ow.”
I said “Very observant of you, my friend!”
“If you read old books,” continued Jack unperturbed, “say, thirty years ago or older, anyone who got hurt would say “Ouch!” Now all you hear is “Ow!”
I said “Actually, Jack, I’ve been saying ‘Ow” all my life … that’s what Dutch people say when they get hurt. I can’t remember ever having said “Ouch”; I guess in North America the “Ouch” is just another linguistic derelict. But I don’t think its disappearance is going to hurt anyone.”
“Probably not,” agreed Jack.
I said “What I find more disconcerting is the slow but certain way the hyphen is disappearing.”
“And that,” said Jack with more than a hint of sarcasm, “is a great blow to the English language, is it?”
I said I thought it was. “I think that after the slow evolution of punctuation over the centuries, any decline in precision is truly a step backward. Think how hundreds of years ago a period or a comma were unknown. It makes for difficult reading. Besides, such small aids to comprehension avoid a lot of misinterpretations.”
“Like how?” asked Jack.
I said “Give me a second…” I quickly scribbled a few words on a paper napkin. “Here, take for instance this sequence of words: ‘I saw Henry a long time ago he was rich.’ If you put a period after ‘Henry’, it reads ‘I saw Henry PERIOD. A long time ago he was rich.’ I saw him recently, but remembered that a long time ago he was rich. If you put the period after ‘ago’, the meaning is altered quite substantially: ‘I saw Henry a long time ago PERIOD. He was rich.’ You see the difference?”
Jack nodded reluctantly. “But what’s wrong with dropping a hyphen?”
I said “In German and Dutch you can make nouns as long as you wish, you just tack one after the other. You can make words like “railwaytieinspector”. One word. Or “applicationrenewalform.” English doesn’t allow you to do that. The closest it comes is tying two or more words together via a hyphen.
“Give me a f’rinstance,” said Jack.
“I just happen to have a good one right here,” I said, as I unfurled a community newspaper that had a picture of a sign posted on what looked like Brittania beach. The sign reads NO-SWIMMING ADVISORY CURRENTLY IN EFFECT.” I showed the photo to Jack. “Now tell me, what happens if you take the hyphen away?”
Jack mulled the problem over for a few seconds, and replied “I guess in that case it means the very opposite – that there is currently no reason for you not to go into the water.”
“Right.”I said, “the words remain the same, but the meaning is completely reversed. The sign is correctly punctuated. Keep a good lookout at how often the hyphen preceding ‘free’ is missing in food advertisements. ‘FAT FREE”, “CHOLESTEROL FREE." It doesn’t mean that the item if free of fat or cholesterol; it means that they’ve thrown in the fat or cholesterol free of charge – exactly the opposite of what they mean to say. You need a hyphen to make the meaning absolutely clear. Think of the pain the inventor of the hyphen would feel if he could see how casually his brainchild is being discarded.”
“Yes,” agreed Jack with a smile, “it is to weep! But whatcha gonna do when the whole world is agin ya?” shooting me down with an arrow from my own quiver.
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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