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story.lead_photo.caption A statue of Popeye the Sailor Man, who eats spinach and eschews hyphens, swaggers above Popeye's Garden in downtown Alma. (Democrat-Gazette file photo/DAVID GOTTSCHALK )

Back when the somewhat irritating animated TV show Beavis and Butt-Head was popular, I can recall a copy editor in the newsroom uttering the memorable query, "Does Butt-Head have a hyphen?" It's no doubt an age-old question.

Writers and editors think a fair amount about hyphens. Much of the time, we use hyphens to clear up confusion. Other times, we use them based on judgment calls. And still other times, we use them because the dictionary says we should. But don't look for consistency in the hyphen world.

For a while, I had a supervisor who was adamant about eliminating unneeded hyphens. So I spent a bit too much time checking the dictionary on hyphens.

I had to check on "eye-popping" recently. It's a descriptive word meaning astonishing. Cartoon characters often see eye-popping things, and, unfortunately, we see a little too much of their eyeballs. Eye-popping has a hyphen. But the noun "eyepopper"? No hyphen. Who on earth decides this? Popeye the Sailor Man has no hyphen in his name, by the way.

(Side note: I remember how to spell "adamant" primarily because I think of British singer Adam Ant.)

The Associated Press Stylebook agrees with the Webster's New World Dictionary that "mom and pop shop" doesn't need hyphens. I guess it's considered to be a familiar-enough phrase. But "big-box store" does need a hyphen. AP business writers, apparently, think the hyphen is needed to make clear it's not a giant store that sells boxes.

The AP says "bird-watching" and "people-watching" have hyphens. "Whale watching" has no hyphen. Another mystery.

And a couple of weeks back, I checked whether dog walking had a hyphen in it. It doesn't. It's two words. But when I looked up the word, the dictionary suggested that I perhaps meant to look for "duckwalking." Now, duckwalking isn't walking your pet ducks. Duckwalking is walking like a duck, in a squatting position. This entry raises many questions unrelated to hyphens. Was the art of duckwalking so pervasive that the dictionary needed a word for it? Duckwalking was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1950. Those were simpler times, I guess. The American Heritage Dictionary apparently thinks the human race is OK without the word. I guess the editors there believe that if you walk like a duck, you walk like a duck. No compound words are needed.

Sometimes hyphens help to make phrases clearer. I read this sentence this week:

He previously spent 16 years as a fish and wildlife biologist.

That made me laugh, partly because the line ended after "fish." I imagined this poor man spending 16 years as a fish. (No, I'm not anti-fish. I would just rather have lungs than gills.) But it seemed excessive to change it to "a fish-and-wildlife biologist."

Please let me know if you see any phrases that are sorely lacking hyphens.


Bespoke is a newer word to me. As a verb, it's the past tense of bespeak, which means to indicate. I can comprehend bespeak. It's close to "speaks of." But the adjective means custom-made. It's often used with clothing that's made-to-order rather than off the rack.

His bespoke seersucker suit had the stripes running horizontally.

A New York Times writer was already tired of the term three years ago, he wrote in an article. The writer, Jim Farber, said the word was being applied to far too many things, including cocktails, vacations, barbershops and insurance. It has a bit of a snob appeal. That's something that people either crave or dislike. Farber also quoted a food blogger who said Burger King was the first bespoke restaurant because customers can hold the pickle, the lettuce or whatever else they don't want. How fancy.

Words have popularity contests, too.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary has so many features that it's easy to miss some cool ones. I just noticed the part that reveals a word's "look-up popularity." When you look up a word at, scroll down a little on the definition page and look for a light blue line that will say, "Learn more about [whatever word you looked for]." I'm not sure the popularity is listed with each word (forgive me for not checking every word). The statistics are regularly updated, too.

I wonder whether the individual words send requests to Facebook friends to ask for their votes.

I'm sorry to report that "bespoke" is among the top 10% in popularity. Sadly, the word "popularity" is the bottom 50%. So is "chocolate." Boo. "Happiness" is in the top 20%. I don't know if that's good or bad. If you have to look up the definition of "happiness," that's a little sad.

Sources include The AP Stylebook, Merriam-Webster dictionaries and The New York Times. Reach Bernadette at

Style on 08/26/2019

Print Headline: Decipherin' the usage of hyphens


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