Using the hyphen

Hyphens are on the rise. They’ve been regularly sighted in lifestyle magazines featuring young moms, homemakers, recently married models, and women on top. Both subjects and those who pick them like editors, writers, and publishers employ hyphens on their names.

The hyphenated surname seems the preferred mode of identification for career women. The four-part-appellation (when including the second name) has become a badge of independence, seeming to declare that they’re married (yes) but that doesn’t stop them from having their own public persona, with careers unrelated to the last part of their names.

The un-hyphenated rendition of the female’s name suggests that the woman is unmarried, separated, defiantly independent, or merely hanging on to her old name which may be more recognizable than that of the current or former partner. Also, migration from hyphenated double surname to a single one implies a new status.

Hyphens were previously used to break up words that continue beyond the end of a fixed line of text. This was before computers rearranged spacing to dispense with such a requirement, as words no longer need to be broken up when they can be easily “justified right.”

Still, a series of words, joined together as a single modifier, as in “needing-a-longer-runway-for-takeoff” financial crisis to describe the penchant of the challenged company, can provide a more colorful takeaway. The combination of nouns and adjectives joined by a hyphen also delivers a bigger punch as in “pie-in-the-sky aspiration” rather than merely optimistic to describe a business plan for bigger revenues.

Political correctness in describing racial classifications has generated a slew of hyphenated words like African-American, instead of the “N” word or even the previously acceptable “black” classification. The hyphenated man can reflect maternal or grand-maternal roots which are routinely used in the field of male models, like Japanese-Brazilian, which can also be further shortened to Brapanese or Jazilian.

The burst of football frenzy five years ago put the hyphen to work double time with the different racial mixes in a supposedly national team. The Fil-Brits and Fil-Ams came together to raise the national colors with attempts at speaking a barely understandable twang of Tag-Brit as a form of identification with some local TV stars. To be sure, there are indeed bona-fide local players in that team that never got too much advertising billboard exposure. The native breed needs no hyphen, as in Fil-Fil if both parents are locals. A pedestrian Filipino appellation suffices.

It must be noted that the hyphen is different from a slash (or virgule). The hyphen connects ideas while the virgule separates them in a multiple bundle. Those partial to the slash exhibit multi-tasking tendencies when they put in their calling cards such positions as entertainer/pole-dancer/landscape architect. (The verbal expression actually enunciates the slash.) This demonstration of versatility does not always imply expertise in all or any of the claimed and often unconnected talents. Her pole dancing is too basic.

Germans can cram ideas together to form a single word without benefit of hyphens as in “schadenfreude” -- which literally translates into “joy in misery,” referring to the delight in discovering somebody else’s downfall, a very popular pastime in boxing and art auctions. French, like English, is not averse to the hyphen at all, as in “tête-à-tête” (literally, head-to-head) for a conversation that is intimate and enjoyable and doesn’t imply the shedding of any article of clothing…until the time for pole dancing.

Hyphens are like the joints of a train, keeping the different coaches together so they don’t go off the rails. The hyphen must be differentiated from a dash, even if two hyphens are converted by the computer into a single dash. A hyphen is half a dash and does not require a pregnant pause, just a speed bump between words.

The use of the hyphen asserts an I-have-a-maiden-name individuality for a female who is legally encouraged to adopt the surname of a once complete stranger, if only for bank accounts. I have no problem with this I-had-my-own-identity-before-I-met-this-joker posturing. It’s a simple you-don’t-own-my-body-or-my-passbook declaration of independence which is not at all incompatible with you-need-to-support-my-shopping assumptions.

This hyphen ventilating is fine for punctuations-don’t-keep-me-awake-at-night types of persons. Usually, it’s too tiring anyway to be a pain-in-the-ass grammarian. It’s best to simply get on with life with je-ne-sais-quoi nonchalance.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.