Will Our Hyphens Join Us or Divide Us?

Italian-Americans celebrating Columbus Day in New York (Shutterstock)



Hours of my life have been wasted dithering over which compound phrases should be hyphenated, which separate, which mushed together. When Angus Stevenson, an editor of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, braved scandal by yanking the hyphens out of 16,000 words, I yelled “Woohoo” at my desk. The act honored aesthetics (hyphens annoy a typeset page like crumbs on Irish linen) and common sense (nobody knows how to use them anyway).

Maybe I also hate hyphens because, as a mutt, I am secretly jealous of anyone with an ethnicity strong enough and pure enough to identify them. But I also feel uneasy for—and this is unlike me—patriotic reasons. All the hyphenated caveats—African-American, Asian-American, Italian-American—seem somehow divisive, pitting us against one another, our sorting hat the word before the hyphen.

This might be a naïve worry. We are, after all, already divided, and today’s tribalism is nothing new. A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt had the same reservations: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism…. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

The first hyphen, the Greek enoticon, was used not to divide but to show what went together, punctuating the stream of words that filled papyrus in unbroken lines. Later, after typesetting took care of the spacing, the hyphen still joined words that belonged together—each adding meaning to the other—but it also formally divided words. The second syllable could drop to the next line, avoiding ugly gaps of white.

Today, we use the hyphen to join and divide—even chunking phone numbers so they are readable. A hyphen can broker a compromise, letting a woman keep her name and take her husband’s name at once. It can hide what is sacred (G–d) or profane (f–k). In her slim, thoughtful book Hyphen, Pardis Mahdavi first loathes her hyphenated identity. The skinny little dividing line in “Iranian-American” was a border she kept trying to cross, though on the Iranian side, she was not deemed Iranian enough, and on the American side, too Iranian. After watching others try to balance on that fulcrum, she begins to see the hyphen as a source of power, joining two aspects of her identity rather than splitting her into two incomplete selves.

Mahdavi uses the book (part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, edited by Washington University profs Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg) to explore hyphenated identity, but along the way, she researches the history of the mark. Its name literally means “under one,” and it began as a sort of undertie, a little smile between two letters to indicate they belonged to the same word.

“Dionysus Thrax, the tax-evading, second-century [BCE] Greek grammarian, gave birth to the hyphen when he was caught between two worlds,” she writes, his experience resonating. In “The

Art of Grammar,” he set the traditional rules aside and offered new punctuation to help speakers and singers convey both sense and tone.

The mark continued to evolve. In 1455, Gutenberg’s hot, fiddly moveable type could not accommodate a hyphen placed beneath the letters, so he raised the bar to the middle of the line. His hyphens divided. To keep his Bibles cleanly justified (before computers made that easy) he was willing to end eight lines in a row with divided words.

Shakespeare used the hyphen to indicate that a character was now speaking to someone else—just as an Indian-American might slip into Hindi or Urdu on one side of the hyphen, speaking to Indians scattered around the world, then return to English to speak to fellow citizens.

As the customs of print solidified, the hyphen took on intellectual importance. By building a skinny rope bridge between words, it named new inventions and made new concepts possible. If the joined phrase took hold, the compound won itself a place as a new word, and there was no more need for a bridge. The hyphen had done its job.

“It has been this small piece of orthography that has created new words, imbued them with new meanings, and allowed us to speak and write in new ways,” Mahdavi remarks. “The hyphen has the power to make two become one.” Should I rethink my qualms, then? Uniting a personality can only help the body politic. But she continues: “That the hyphen drops out is not a testament to its weakness—quite the contrary.”

In 2019, the Associated Press deleted the hyphen from “German-American,” “Chinese-American,” and similar compounds. Americans should not need to tag their Americanness with their ethnicity. This, too, I cheered. Saying someone is Asian-Hispanic would make sense if they had a Japanese dad and a Mexican mom. But Asian-American? To me, that feels like a category error, like saying a dog is gray-Schnauzer. Once you leave Asia, being Asian is an ethnicity. Being American means you are a citizen of a place that blends many ethnicities, and you are part of its social contract, able to vote here and make your home here. Even native Americans, who are ethnically native to this physical land mass, do not need to hyphenate; they are native to this land and, now, American. The joining is better done with “and” because the two modifiers describe entirely different sorts of membership. Linking them in a tight compound would imply that the Irish-Americans are a different sort of American than Asian-Americans; that their ethnicity modifies their citizenship. Fear-mongers love such tricks.

When Mahdavi was struggling to feel she belonged on either side of her hyphen, why did she not feel fully American? That part is America’s fault. Being American means belonging to a nation that is global in its reach, that welcomes (or at least did once, at least theoretically) people of every background. Someone very different from you can be just as American as you are. There is no American ethnicity. What binds us are documents—a bill of rights, a constitution, a declaration of independence, a body of law—and the values and beliefs that undergird them.

It would have been nice if a richer American culture, one with the common foods, customs, and beliefs traditionally shared by ethnic groups, had taken root. A core of identity deeper and better able to unite us than a flag, civics lessons, and the idolatry of speed, tech, sex, and material success. Instead, only advertisers and politicians have tried hard to posit and tap into a shared national character. Alas, baseball is too slow. Apple pie might not be gluten-free. Chevy is last-century, jazz is long out of fashion, and rock ’n’ roll has lost its energy. The best American music weaves motifs and rhythms from other parts of the world, as does our best food, craft, and fashion. More than any uniquely American ritual we could have created, we value the freedom to eat and buy and enjoy whatever we like, keeping the whole world within reach.

So here we are, tracking pop culture but falling back on ethnic roots for anything deeper. No wonder we reach for the hyphen. Does it reconcile cultural background with the social contract? Ease xenophobia by drawing the difference closer to the nationality? Reassure those who feel unwelcome by shoring up and validating the part of their background that bothers others?

Mahdavi reconciles her sense of alienation by realizing she does not have to fit perfectly on either side of the hyphen: “I can embrace the space between.” Still, the geometry troubles me. These are not circles in a Venn diagram that happen to intersect. These are separate layers of identity that should not need to modify or cancel one another, any more than someone’s age or gender should influence their choice of religion, making them female-Catholic or aged-Buddhist.

Ancient Romans made use of the Greek hyphen to pry apart smashed-together words they could not grasp. When they made mistakes and did not want to waste parchment, they razored off the error and covered it with a straight line placed in the middle. Is that what we have done? Hidden our mistakes, our inability to make people feel fully at home, by handing them a hyphen?

The problem is, there are differences in how it feels to be an American if you have skin of a certain color, an accent, years of life spent elsewhere. Some of those differences add rich, subtle perspectives to the larger culture; others are painful, created by the reception people receive here. Violence. Yells of “Go back to your country.” Suspicion. Exclusion. Even after years of being melted together and tossed about, there are quite a few Americans who are only truly comfortable with other White Christians.

This is a concept country, like one of those cool demo cars that never get made because they are too flawed to be practical. Except, the nation did get made. We are still figuring out how to punctuate that reality.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.