Once upon a hyphen…
This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode
Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Patrick Cox: It’s a new episode of Subtitle. A new season, and Kavi, I have a new question. A question I’m guessing you’ve never been asked before.
Kavita Pillay: Oh, OK!
Patrick Cox: OK, here goes. When I say John Wayne, what comes to mind?
Kavita Pillay: Cowboy hat, black and white films, toxic masculinity. Do I need to go on?
Patrick Cox: Well, he was a big star, the star of westerns, when westerns were a big genre.
Movie clip: “I don’t like quitters, especially when they’re not good enough to finish what they start. Now go on, speak up, say it and you can join your friends here.”
Patrick Cox: Maybe less revered for his acting prowess and more for a certain type of belief system. Like, there was good, there was evil. You couldn’t really distinguish between the two but John Wayne would do it for you. And he’d throw in a few punches along the way. I think of him out there in the wild west making all of his moral decisions as Mr Manifest Destiny.
Kavita Pillay: Oh God, yeah.
Movie clip: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around but you’re dead as a beaver hat.”
Patrick Cox: It’s probably no great surprise to you that he was an outspoken conservative Republican.
Kavita Pillay: No surprise.
Patrick Cox: A little bit more surprising was that he really hated a certain punctuation mark, the hyphen.
Kavita Pillay: oh.
John Wayne: The hyphen is what the dictionary defines is a symbol used to divide a compound word or a single word.
Patrick Cox: This is John Wayne speaking in the early 1970s.
John Wayne: So it seems to me that when a man calls himself an Afro-American, a Mexican-American, an Italian-American, an Irish-American, Jewish-American, what he’s saying is I’m a divided American.
Patrick Cox: Just to give you a bit of context here: Wayne’s friend Richard Nixon, he was the president. The country was still reeling from the 60s, the Vietnam War, the March on Washington, the counterculture, assassinations, all kinds of turmoil. And so John Wayne’s response to all this was to record this album called, America, Why I Love Her. This is one of the tracks, The Hyphen.
John Wayne: We all came from other places, different creeds, different races, to form a nation, to become as one. Yet look at the harm a line has done. A simple little line and yet as divisive as a line can get. A crooked cross the Nazis flew, and the Russian hammer and sickle too. Time bombs in the lives of man. But none of these could ever fan the flames of hatred faster than the hyphen.
Kavita Pillay: So John Wayne is saying that the hyphen is more divisive and hateful symbol than the Nazi use of the swastika and the hammer and sickle?
Patrick Cox: Yeah. And the thing is he’s not alone in having, shall we say, strong feelings about the hyphen.
Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Kavita Pillay.
Patrick Cox: And I’m Patrick Cox. Does the hyphen divide, as John Wayne would have it? Or does it unite? And how did this little horizontal line become so loved and so loathed?
Pardis Mahdavi: When I’m in the United States, I introduce myself as Pardis Mahdavi. When I’m in Iran, I pronounce my name “PAR-dis Mahdavi” but the pronunciation of my name that I dislike the most is “Pardus Mendavi.”
Patrick Cox: Pardis is the daughter of Iranian immigrants. Which makes her Iranian American. Iranian-hyphen-American.
Pardis Mahdavi: You know, my parents initially came to the United States in the early 1970s. They actually met here. They met in Chicago. My father was a resident at the University of Chicago and my mother was an aspiring college student, you know, trying to figure out where she fit in.
Patrick Cox: It took awhile, that fitting in. But Pardis’ parents got married — they actually returned to Iran to do that. In Iran there was revolution in the air, constant street protests, violence, martial law. The Shah’s pro-Western regime was teetering.
Pardis Mahdavi: And my parents had this sense of, do we stay and fight? Do we go? And, you know, when my mom became pregnant with me, at one point she was actually arrested when she was pregnant with me. And I think my father decided at that point to look, you know, let’s just get out of here for a little bit until things calm down.
Patrick Cox: And so they left Iran and moved back to the US, to Minnesota this time. Pardis spent her early years there with her family including her grandmother, who’d say things like “I’m leaving America” She’d say that most days. Pardis didn’t know any different, of course but it was clear the family were far from settled.
Pardis Mahdavi: My family always had a bag packed. There was always, you know, a suitcase packed in the corner, ready to go back to Iran. And you know, my parents always would say, well, OK, well, when we go back or when things change, when things become different, when we go back. And so they didn’t really have that sense of permanence or that sense of, well, now we’ve settled in this new place until we were much older. And, you know, for them, they very much saw themselves as Iranian, but living in America and but, you know, for my brothers and I, it was a very different experience and a very different existence.
Patrick Cox: The children would listen in on their parents’ discussions about the Mullahs who were now running Iran, and then later about the war with Iraq that was decimating the country. Iran sounded like a total mess, they didn’ t want to move there. But at the same time in the US, Iranians had become the enemy. The hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal…
Pardis Mahdavi: And so my brothers and I were very aware that we were not wanted here in this country. That came to a head. when, you know, my brother and I came home from school one day and there was a sign and it said, burn this house, terrorists live here. My grandmother: To the day she died never learned English. She was there. She opened the door and she could not understand the sign. And so I read it out loud. And then I translated it for her and her face just went completely white. And she called my father and said, “You need to come home right now. You need to see this.”
That was really hard for us to get our heads around. My father’s a doctor, he helps people. Why are we being painted this way? And so we felt, well, we definitely don’t belong here. And then we had our parents who were saying, “Well, we can’t go back to Iran now.” And and so we had that sense of, “OK, well, where are we supposed to be?” My father decided then and there that we were going to move to California because he felt that it was no longer safe for his family, for us to be there in Minneapolis.
Patrick Cox: A lot of exiled Iranians had moved to California there were a lot more Brown people there in general.
Pardis Mahdavi: So we moved to California, which was definitely better in many ways. But that suitcase was still packed in the corner of our house and in San Diego.
Patrick Cox: Pardis went to college and grad school in the US, but was always curious about Iran. She traveled there on a series of research trips, and this is where her sense of living in the hyphen came into its own. In Iran, she felt a bit too American…
Pardis Mahdavi: You know, in my appearance or comportment. But also, you know, and what I had chosen to study, which was, you know, feminism and sexual revolution in Iran, which on the one hand was very exciting to the young people, people my age that I met, but, of course, was less exciting to a regime who saw that as a threat and who saw me as somebody who might be trying to foment a revolution.
Patrick Cox: Despite that, Pardis was permitted to do her research. She worked with UNESCO and the United Nations HIV/AIDs program, and she found herself collaborating with Iranian government agencies. Together with officials there, she helped design a new school curriculum on sexual and reproductive rights. She realized she was helping Iran to modernize, it was workable, she felt. It was, until 2005. That’s when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President of Iran. The new guy wasn’t a fan of the west. He wasn’t a a fan of women’s rights.
Pardis Mahdavi: Suddenly my research became very difficult. And I was, you know, as I was publishing more and more on my research, I, you know, became more and more heavily scrutinized. I was followed, my phone was tapped, my email was tapped. And then eventually at a certain point, as I was in the midst of giving a lecture, I was actually arrested. So and, you know, then in 2007, I was actually kicked out of Iran and stripped of my citizenship.
Patrick Cox: So now, whether she liked it or not, Pardis was no longer Iranian. But what did that make her? American, as in 100% American? Or something else?
Pardis Mahdavi: And that was really the moment where I realized, you know what, I have to live in that hyphen. That’s where that’s where I’m going to have to live, because I don’t fit in either homeland. And there are a lot of hyphenated people like me. And so we can create our own homeland inside this tiny orthographic mark.
Patrick Cox: After the break, Who was the first person to use a hyphen? And what did it mean to them?
Kavita Pillay: Subtitle is a proud member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a group of podcasters who tell stories about art, science, history, and of course, language. One of those podcasts is The Lonely Palette. Each episode takes you behind the scenes of one piece of art, whether it’s American Gothic, a Rembrandt portrait or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. Even if you think you know everything about these works, host Tamar Avishai will tell you more.
Patrick Cox: With her interest in the hyphen fast becoming an obsession, Pardis Mahdavi began researching the hyphen’s origin story. Who, she wondered, coined it?
Pardis Mahdavi: Dionysus Thrax.
Patrick Cox: Dionysus Thrax. What a name! That could be a character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Or like a glam rock band from the 1970s or something. So, OK, so he was a Greek grammarian from the second century.
Pardis Mahdavi: Yes. And he was wandering the halls of the Alexandria Library. And trying to figure out how he could get — because at the time, poems and essays that were written were actually sung. So instead of being read out loud, they were sung. And Dionysius Thrax was trying to figure out how can he indicate to the singers when there are two separate words that actually belong together?
Patrick Cox: The “hyphen” he came up with didn’t actually look like a hyphen at all. It was sublinear, meaning it appeared beneath the script line. And it was curved. It was used to show that two separate words had a connection with each other.
Pardis Mahdavi: And so the hyphen started as an orthographic mark to join, to bring together, to show that two words or concepts belonged together.
Patrick Cox: So that was its debut. Over the centuries the hyphen’s usage ebbed and flowed. But it was generally used that way, to link words and ideas, to unite them. That is until Celtic monks started using it in a very different way.
Pardis Mahdavi: The Celtic monks couldn’t wrap their brains around this sub-linear mark. They used the hyphen to divide.
Patrick Cox: Words had gotten long and complex. Which was a problem for the monks, because they were trying to popularize the Bible. Some words just needed splitting up. And so these monks, they set up the opposite way of using the hyphen. Instead of uniting, dividing.
The centuries rolled on, at least in the way I’m telling this history. Some people used hyphens as prescribed by Dionysus Thrax, to combine words and ideas. Others like the monks used them to break down overly long and compound words, to divide them. Over time, we allowed for both in the language. Which gave the hyphen an ambiguity. But that ambiguity opened it up to exploitation.
Hyphenated American identities came into being sometime in the 19th century. It was only a matter before certain politicians began questioning the loyalties of German-Americans or Irish-Americans. What did that hyphen mean, exactly? President Theodore Roosevelt asked that question. Woodrow Wilson too.
Pardis Mahdavi: And that carried over into World War Two. So a hyphenated American is not an American. And that’s when you had societies like the Japanese American Society of America drop the hyphen to show that they did not have divided loyalties.
Patrick Cox: I just wonder, was that enough for politicians who were sort of anti-hyphen? They didn’t drop the word, Japanese.
Pardis Mahdavi: And I would have I would have thought initially the same as you, Patrick, but when I started to do this research, I found that the very public dropping of the hyphen from Japanese American was seen as a statement and a symbol of, OK, we do not have divided loyalties. We are Americans.
Patrick Cox: Other immigrant groups chose to drop the hyphen too, among them Chinese Americans, Italian Americans. These groups of immigrants and their children, it was as though they were liberated from the hyphen, from that bridge to another land, from their nostalgia, their first love. Without the hyphen, they were finally assimilated. Unambiguously American.
But the hyphen itself, was it used any differently, aside from these identity labels? Well, sort of. You saw the hyphen in some words, and then you didn’t.
Pardis Mahdavi: So if you think about the trajectory of words, so a word like waystation: Waystation used to be two words, then it was way-hyphen-station for three decades. Then in 2006, the shorter Oxford English Dictionary came out and waystation was just one word.
Patrick Cox: So in this case the hyphen acts as a — wait for the weird metaphorical coincidence — the hyphen acts as a waystation to connect these two words. Two words morph into one hyphenated word. The hyphenated version of the word is a way-station for thirty years until it drops the hyphen and becomes one word: Same thing with the word email: Two words,then hyphenated single word, then one word. The hyphen brings the words together and then silently edges out of the room. The words are assimilated into one.
Except when they refuse to be. Ice cream used to be hyphenated. And then, well, dictionaries did drop the hyphen to reflect common usage but the two words didn’t become one. They remain, to this day, separate.
Japanese Americans paved the way for hyphen-dropping as a way of, quote, “proving” they’d assimilated. Others followed suit. But at the same time as that was going on, new immigrants were arriving.
Pardis Mahdavi: You have people like me, my family, Iranian Americans who come in the seventies. The hyphen comes back in.
Patrick Cox: Aaah! You can’t get rid of it that easily.
Pardis Mahdavi: The question is, does the hyphen connect or divide? And initially it comes back in to divide.
Patrick Cox: That seems odd, until you realize who re-inserted the hyphen into these newer immigrants’ identities.
Pardis Mahdavi: It was actually immigration authorities who initially brought it back in, and then the news media. Immigration authorities put it in there to show, OK, these are new immigrants, right? Iranian Americans. These are new immigrants. Right. And they and they are still considered divided. So with divided loyalties.
Patrick Cox: I see, so it’s a way of saying that they’re not quite Americans yet. We’re only going to drop the hyphen once they sort of, you know, once they say the Pledge of Allegiance at their Naturalization Service.
Pardis Mahdavi: We don’t consider them Americans, their hyphenated Americans, they’ve got to say the national anthem, et cetera, to drop that hyphen.
Pledge of Allegiance ceremony: “Congratulations, you are America’s newest citizens.”
Patrick Cox: So unassimilated newcomers get a hyphen, like some kind of a warning sign: Watch out! They may be spies! The assumption being that at some assimilated point in the future, the hyphen will vanish. Presto! Trustworthy!
Well, that’s not exactly how things turned out. This is the hyphen we’re talking about. We don’t agree on the hyphen. Here’s what happened: Not long after Pardis’ family came to America, some people — immigrants, or their children — they said OK, if you’re going to force a hyphen on us, we’ll take it. We’ll run with it.
Pardis Mahdavi: People with hyphenated identities reclaimed the hyphen and they say, actually, no, this is meant to connect, not divide. And this is meant to connect, to create something new. So to say, look, I’m not a type of American that is Japanese or a type of American that is Chinese. But I am Chinese-American. I am African-American. I am Iranian-American. I am a different type of American. Because having that hyphen allows us to live in that hyphen.
Patrick Cox: It was this renewed enthusiasm for the hyphen which John Wayne was objecting to.
John Wayne: So you be wise in your decision, and that little line won’t cause division. Let’s join hands with one another, for in this land each man’s your brother. United we stand, divided we fall. We’re Americans, and that says it all.
Patrick Cox: As dated as John Wayne sounds, there are many Americans today who agree with him. You can find them on YouTube. Most are white men, but there are also people like Bobby Jindal. He was born in the US to Indian immigrant parents, became governor of Louisiana and then was briefly a Republican Presidential candidate in 2016.
Bobby Jindal (speaking to a crowd): I don’t know about you but I am tired of the hyphenated Americans. We’re not African-Americans, we’re not Asian-Americans, we’re not rich Americans, we’re not poor Americans. We’re all Americans. And it’s time to stand up to this nonsense.”
Patrick Cox: Other second-generation immigrants — people on the political left — they reject the hyphen too. Former speechwriter for Bill Clinton Eric Liu, he says this: “American is the noun, Chinese the adjective. Or, rather, Chinese is one adjective. I am many kinds of American, after all: a politically active American, a short American, an earnest American, an educated American.”
Most style guides have come to agree with that assessment. The Associated Press, the New York Times, BuzzFeed: they all have dropped the hyphen in African American, Asian American, Mexican American, etc. Pardis, though: She doesn’t want to drop it. The hyphen appeals to her. And, as an immigrant myself, I get it. The phrase, “living in the hyphen” helps you make sense of a life in America where you belong and you don’t belong, simultaneously. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Hyphenated. It’s hosted by a couple of comedians, Jenny Lorenzo and Joanna Hausmann, who you may also have heard on this podcast. Well, that show is a week-by-week exploration of living in the hyphen. Joanna’s Venezuelan-American, Jenny’s Cuban-American.
(From Hyphenated) Joanna Hausmann: Ok, so Jenny, the reason why we started this podcast is because we always felt like we weren’t 100% anything. I say Venezuelan-American but sometimes I feel like 100% Venezuelan, sometimes I feel 100% American, sometimes I’m like…
Jenny Lorenzo: What was that accent? (laugher)
Patrick Cox: Pardis mentioned the shorter Oxford English Dictionary declaring waystation to be one word. It was one of thousands of words that have recently shed their hyphen. One editor at the OED, a man by the name of Angus Stevenson, seemed especially down on the hyphen. In 2007 the dictionary bade farewell to 16,000 hyphens. He said the hyphen was “messy looking and old-fashioned.” But there was a backlash, in the possibly messy and old-fashioned form of letters to the New York Times.
Pardis Mahdavi: There were floods of letters saying there’s a hyphen thief on the loose. And then. Right, you had editor Angus Stephenson saying the hyphen is dead, it’s useless. And, you know, just an absolute uproar from hyphenophiles around the world. And by making such a proclamation that undervalues the mighty power of the hyphen. Right. So, yes, it’s true that it was gone from 16,000 words, but it had actually created new words. It had joined words that created new sounds and new words. And there were still hyphens now in newer words. And for him to declare the hyphen dead was also, I think, very significant for hyphenated individuals all over the world. So that probably explains the very loud outcry.
Patrick Cox: We could do a whole episode just about that moment. It was intense. But Pardis is right. It was a sort of existential moment for the hyphen. And it made people think about it in ways they’d never considered before. Which brings us back to perhaps the ultimate question hovering over the hyphen. The waystation question. Or put another way, how the hyphen acts as a vehicle to take you from one state of being to another.
Patrick Cox: Does that mean that any hyphenated word is, by its very nature, transitory, on its way to becoming something else?
Pardis Mahdavi: You know, that’s one way of looking at it, Patrick. I mean, I think you could say that, that it’s a journey. I mean, we’re all on a journey, right? And so the hyphen is bringing people on that journey. So, yes. You know, could it be that it’s on the way to being something else? But I think we can’t say that the hyphen is just a step towards an inevitable fusion, because that’s not always the case. And I think we have to remember that, like the cases of words like ice cream, which never became fused into one word, it’s just the hyphen dropped. So I think that we have to think about the hyphen yes, as part of a journey, but not a journey whose destination is known.
Patrick Cox: Pardis Mahdavi. She’s the dean of social sciences and a professor at the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Her most recent book is called Hyphen. To see a photo of Pardis and her family go to Subtitle’s website.
Kavita Pillay: Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Thanks to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America. Also to Allison Shao, Barbara Bullock, Nicole Holliday. Lynne Murphy, Nina Porzucki, Jacqueline Toribio, Carol Zall, and to Suzanne Wilson and Clarice Gauer at Arizona State University.
Patrick Cox: Drumroll, we have a newsletter! We’re planning on putting out a new one every two weeks. There’ll be news on upcoming episodes. Also our take on language issues in the news. And some goofy stuff too. If you’d like to subscribe, go to our website. Or email us.
Kavita Pillay: That’s it for this time. Thanks for listening. Happy holidays! And see you in the new year.