Now that we are settled in Vermont and can find most of our belongings (my running shoes must still be in one of those U-Haul containers), I’ve run out of cross-country things to say.
Not to fear: I have plenty of other things to talk about. For example, hyphens.
The word hyphen itself is interesting. It comes from two Greek words, hupo and hen, meaning under and one. The combo used to have a meaning of together when they were joined in huphen. So a hyphen is something that brings things together.
This strikes me as odd: hyphens always seem to separate things to me. Maybe that’s because when I worked as a typesetter I became familiar with en-dashes and em-dashes, giving me a trio of word separating lines to use. An en-dash is roughly as wide as the letter “n,” and an em-dash is roughly as wide as (you guessed it) the letter “m.”
The hyphen is the baby of the group. It’s also the symbol used to join together related words: short-term and pick-up for example. The en dash, being longer than a hyphen, indicates two things that have some distance between them, most commonly a range of dates or similar items: October–December and 3:30–5:30
The em-dash is the longest of the three, and therefore it represents an even greater distance. In fact, a pair of em-dashes usually surrounds material that could have just as easily been left out of a sentence: He laughed—he was always laughing—at the puppy’s silly behavior.
By now, we’re pretty far removed from huphen and coming together. But as you know, I am a persnickety grammarian. And I have the tee shirts to prove it!
I like rethinking hyphens as things that bring other things together. It’s much better than viewing them as divisors. After all, we’re all looking for ways to join things and people together these days, aren’t we?
Uh oh. <<WILD DIVERSION AHEAD!>>Bringing things together made me look up rejoinder, because of its similarity to rejoin. The use of rejoinder has dropped considerably from its usage in the late 1800s, as has the use of rejoin, but the latter has shown an uptick in 1960–2010. And sure enough, the two words are related. Rejoin literally means to join again, and rejoinder refers to a reply by a defendant to a charge in a legal proceeding. From there, it got turned into a witty reply—but it still means to join again, a rather good idea right about now. We can trump them all if we do so. Is that a rejoinder? A bit willy-nilly. Ooh, I’m hyphenating!