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In A Word ...

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
The English language is constantly in transit with additions, deletions, and definition revisions. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Wasn't it bad enough to take words that mean something positive and beautiful and turn them into negative outlaw words? I'm talking about words like "snow," that once meant beautiful, tiny white starlike designs, each different from the other, that fell from the sky and turned ordinary towns into winter wonderlands. Once villains appropriated that word and twisted it into defining an illegal drug, well, that was the beginning of the end of civilizaton as we know it.

"Horse" used to mean a glorious animal like Seabiscuit or Secretariat or Barbaro, but was stolen in the dead of night and, against its will, became the definition of heroin (the drug, not the female hero).

Remember when Sammy Davis Jr. sang "Candy Man?" He wasn't singing about sour balls and licorice sticks, he was talking about drugs. It was embarrassing to learn how easily the adults were fooled while the kids understood all along what he was really singing about.

Another example is "Ho" which had been one-third of Santa Claus's hearty laughter, and everybody knew it. Thanks to the inhabitants of our prisons and airwaves, it now means a lady of the night, a soiled dove, a fallen angel.

Where once "baby doll" was a delicate feminine nightie, in certain tainted quarters, it now means a member of the Mexican Mafia.

These are but a few examples of the definition theft that has been going on around us for years and years, with no one doing a thing about it. This should be one of the rights we fight for, part of the American way. Where's William F. Buckley when you need him?

We have now reached the limit of psychic endurance. The Oxford English Dictionary, fondly referred to as OED by language devotees, has decided to suck up to the MTV generation, which can't stand anything that takes longer than a Paris Hilton jail term, by annihilating the gentle hyphen. In its sixth edition, OED has done this not only a few times, but 16,000 times.

What, you may well ask, has the hyphen ever done to the English language that it should be eliminated in such a cavalier manner? It has served civilization well for centuries, not only in our language, but in our cemeteries. If not for the unsung hyphen, how would we know what happened between a person's birth and his death? Let's say an old headstone says 1850 - 1945. Just think of all the child raising, kind acts, and painful breakups that this hyphen represents. Here lies a man who might have fought in the Civil War and again in World War I. That's important stuff. Maybe he was a man whose acts of heroism were modestly represented by a hyphen. Can the world really assassinate such lives with a flick of an OED finger? Yes, and the finger belongs to Angus Stevenson, editor of the newly revised OED.

Though difficult to believe, Stevenson actually said, "People are not confident about using hyphens anymore, they're not really sure what they are for." Perhaps Homer Simpson doesn't know, but everybody else does.

According to Stevenson, another factor in the hyphen's demise is designers' distaste for its ungainly horizontal bulk between words. "Printed writing is very much design-led these days in adverts and Web sites, and people feel that hyphens mess up the look of a nice bit of typography," he said. "The hyphen is seen as messy looking and old-fashioned." Sometimes I'm seen that way, too, but I like to think I'm still useful. Besides, hyphens are a rather attractive bridge spanning two words normally unrelated but connected in that one usage.

"There are places where a hyphen is necessary," Stevenson said, because you can certainly start to get real ambiguity. Twenty-odd people came to the party," he said, "or was it twenty odd people?" We know what you mean, Angus, honey. Just put the hyphen back on tombstones as a compromise and we'll try to adjust. All except for a friend of mine, who believes that the OED suffered a hyphen shortage and voluntarily deleted several thousand hyphen-hogging words, immediately releasing a multitude of hyphens back into general circulation. He asked me to not use any more hyphens until my account has been replenished. He tempers this cheeky request with the good news that I still have a fair amount of semi-colons in my account. If I were a doctor, this would be called a colonoscopy. My friend did carelessly use a rare hyphen in "semi-colon," but he probably has more in his account than I do in mine.

If the advertising-minded, tradition-deprived, attention-craving editors of the OED keep deleting hyphen-bearing words in the English language, posterity will only know they once existed in the American culture because they were later used to make stick figures on the cave walls.
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"

October 5, 2007 column

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