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Sad death of the hyp-
hen that caused mans-

The dreaded but often hilarious hyp-hen has died. With improved technology, today's books, newspapers and magazines rarely break words that used to over-run column width with wrongly-placed hyphens in a way that led to mans-laughter and other typographical leg-ends.

Nearly four years ago, the London newspaper The Times published a string of indignant letters to the editor, indicating that many of its readers hated those pesky words occasionally found at the end of a line of type which a computer has remorselessly hyphenated, with puzzling and sometimes uproarious results.

"Inelegant, unintelligent, and unhelpful," fumed Dr. Hugh de Glanville, in his letter which set the ball rolling. "They are unchecked, it would seem, by any sub-editorial eye."

Dr. de Glanville, of Weybridge, Surrey, a retired tropical physician interested in typesetting, editing, publishing and computing, was particularly riled by centime-tre, which he had spotted in the Spectator magazine. "However," he wrote, "on August 2 you surpassed (underpassed?) this with w-orker."

David McKie, of Cambridge, had read that the model Iman was reputed to be 6ft 2in tall but was in fact "almost half a foot short of her leg-end." His brain underwent tortuous contortions before he realised "what was truly legendum (to be read)."

Writing from Mill Hill with a scholarly flow of words, Professor Gerry Shaper lamented "a widespread and dominant tendency, particularly among scientific and technical journals and magazines, to eschew the hyphen to the point that makes the reader halt in mid-sentence in order to work out the relationship between adjacent words." He praised The Times for preserving "this valuable and meaningful item of the English language."

A round-up of amusing hyp-hens from newspapers and Internet sites at that time yielded these gems (some of which were genuine errors, others were imaginary): pronoun-cement, brains-canner, bed-raggled, the-rapist, prose-cute, surge-on, thin-ness, not-ables, cart-ridge, pa-rent and off-end.

Then there was a slew of age hyp-hens: ad-age, plum-age, mess-age, front-age, and pass-age, culminating in dot-age (short for the dot-com age, or the age when you become a bit dotty). These were closely related to broke-rage and stop-page.

Rampage was a real humdinger - a double hyp-hen. It could become either ram-page or ramp-age. Another double hyp-hen was history, which could divide into hi-story or his-tory.

On the Internet, wordsmith Anu Garg, who sends A Word a Day (AWAD, a wad of words) free to more than 500,000 wordlovers in 210 countries, contributed male-diction with the wry remark "That"s why men curse more often than women." In other words, men-swear. He also coined irre-dentist and stars-truck ("bus for members of a film star"s fan club").

Daniel Austin, then a 20-year-old student from Leamington Spa, England, and webmaster at Fun With Words, spent a sleepless night after reading The Times" letters, dreaming up diver-gent, red-raw, gene-rations, now-here, red-raft, man-aging, past-oral and fat-her. Next day (while in the bath) he thought of seven more: domes-tic, par-king (a good golfer), dorm-ant, mist-rust, reed-it, rest-rain and dip-ole.

These days, Daniel, now 24, specialises in linguistics. His "About us" webpage names as one of his colleagues, "Saddam, who has provided much instruction and assistance on the technical front."

When we inquired about Saddam, Daniel replied, "That is actually a Greek friend who didn"t want his name to appear on my site. So I asked him for a pseudonym, and Saddam was his suggestion. I expect my site has been getting more hits from search engines with the word Saddam on it!"

Cory Calhoun, then a 23-year-old student studying graphic design and theatre arts at Western Washington University (U.S.), featured a page of hyp-hens on his website. These included yell-ow and wee-knight.

And what was his favourite hyp-hen? "I read a real gem the other day," he told us. ""The suspect was charged with mans-laughter!""

Six years ago, Cory produced this classic anagram, which must surely be one of the world"s best:

Original phrase: "To be or not to be, that is the question, whether "tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." (Shakespeare).

Anagram: In one of the Bard"s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.

"Believe it or not," said Cory, "I created that anagram phrase without any aid from a computer program. I started by arranging all the letters in a more or less alphabetical order, then thought of several Shakespeare-related words.

"I created a list, then (as I often do with anagrams) let the letters "speak to me", as to what word would go around the main Shakespearian words. All along, I tried to yield a phrase that made a direct comment about the play itself.

"Often, and much to my fright, I"ll look at words and phrases and almost instantaneously come up with an anagram of it. For example, I once saw the word Spectrum on a car, and Crumpets sprang to mind."

Cory, now 26, works as a freelance graphic artist and amateur crossword creator. His website is well worth a visit.


Good hyp-hens, like many good jokes, are timeless yet sometimes in The Times. Nearly four years ago, this letter appeared in the august (and August) columns of that London journal:

Sometimes the computer improves a word by its placement of the hyphen. My favourite is bed-raggled.
--Eric Shackle, Australia.

Fast forward to June 2, 2003. The Times published this letter:

The word-break I remember best is "bed-raggled", because it so exactly describes what I see in the mirror first thing in the morning. - (Dr) Sara Serpell, Wellesbourne, Warwick.

That prompted Mrs Jane Cullinan, of Padstow, Cornwall, to write: When occasionally I altered the name of my restaurant from "The Last Resort" to "La Stresort", the debate amongst the more pretentious linguists about the meaning of the word "stresort" was sometimes alarming in its ferocity. It did, however, provide splendid entertainment for the staff.





POSTSCRIPT. We've just found a comprehensive list of hyp-hens on a website run by Jim Wegryn (we-gryn). Jim has a lively sense of humour, as evidenced by this extract from his home page:

If you think about it, "understand" is a funny word. Unlike "underarm" or "undercook" it does not make a lot of sense. You have to wonder what standing has to do with comprehension. And why under? More curious is trying to figure out the opposite of understand. Is it underlie, overstand, or overlie? Or maybe it's ununderstand, or just plain derstand.

There are lots of funny words in English, like partake which looks like it has something to do with golf, or bigamist which suggests a person with a sizeable problem, or cockpit which just begs to be fooled with. The word improper is funny if you split the word after the first p.

Jim's long list of hyp-hens is well worth a visit. Just click on WEGRYN.


Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted July 2003

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