Hyphenate with Care

In reading religious and cultural history, I have been struck by several hyphenations that would have been and sometimes still are objectionable to at least one partner in the hyphen.  In reading the Sister Fidelma novels, set in 7th century Ireland, her husband Eadulf is often referred to as “the Saxon.”  Patiently, he replies, I’m an Angle.  No luck, Eadulf, you are stuck with the Anglo-Saxons for eternity.

Then there is Greco-Roman.  It’s true that there was a cultural influence, but the Romans (who conquered the Greeks) had no particular fondness for Greece.  Because of the influence of Greek literature, theatre, religion, and philosophy on Roman culture, however, the two have been in a somewhat acrimonious marriage for eternity as Greco-Roman culture.  Likewise Judao-Christian: consider how badly the Christians have historically treated their religious ancestors.  I’m pretty sure that neither the Greeks nor the Jews (nor, for that matter, the Angles) really consented to being reduced to an adjective. How hard is it to say Jewish and Christian, Greek and Roman if you insist on lumping them together for some purpose? That’s why our language has conjunctions, which don’t have to be replaced by a dashed line.

Yes, there are places for hyphenation. It is one of the ways in which the English language figures out how to have a noun modify an adjective (Star-spangled banner, star-crossed lovers, etc.). It is a way of identifying heritage as well as nationality or citizenship—African-American and Italian-American, for example.  It’s also fine when it is done by choice.  Many women and increasingly couples hyphenate last names, so Jane Smith and Ryan Jones become Smith-Jones, or Jones-Smith, but neither becomes an adjective.  I’m not sure what happens when their daughter Jennifer Smith-Jones marries Edward Morse-Riley, but that’s for them to figure out.

So please hyphenate sparingly, respectfully, and with the consent of those whose names you may be taking in vain.  Or just muster the strength to type the word “and” instead of a hyphen.




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