Maybe everyone in New York City knows this already, but it was news to me that people used to put a hyphen between “New” and “York.”
by Rich Smith
In the summer of 2007, Pardis Mahdavi stood before a podium at the University of Tehran and prepared to speak about the Iranian sexual revolution. She’d been studying the cultural movement for the last seven years, and she wanted to go live with the results before her book on the topic, Passionate Uprisings, published in the United States.
With her anthropological work, Mahdavi, whose parents had immigrated to the U.S. while she was still in her mother’s belly, had partly been trying to reconnect with a culture that war and revolution had stolen from her. Growing up in America, the kids at school assured her that she was not American enough to be an American, and so part of her wanted to see if it were possible to be Iranian enough for the Iranians.
Several minutes into her speech in Tehran, a series of events took place that would ultimately bar her from the country forever. But rather than wallow in her castaway status, those events helped her embrace the hyphen connecting Iranian and American, helped her realize she belonged in the space between.
Later on, after her son, Shayan, asked about that curious little orthographical mark between words on the page, Mahdavi made another discovery. She started researching the history of the hyphen and realized how closely that history aligned with the story of so many hyphenated people in the US and across the globe. Answering those questions from her super-hyphenated son, descended as he was from an Iranian-American and an Asian-American, spurred her to write Hyphen, another strong contribution to Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, which seeks to “uncover the hidden lives of ordinary things.”
In the book, Mahdavi, now the dean of Social Sciences at Arizona State University, weaves her personal history and the history of three other hyphenated people into the ancient history of the hyphen, that little dash that people sort of know how to use sometimes. She follows the little symbol from its Greek origins as a sublinear bow-shaped mark that linked words together to its pivotal role in the Gutenberg Bible to its place as a site of conflict in turn-of-the-20th-century American xenophobia to its mass deletion in the pages of the 2007 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
The juxtaposition of this history with her own story and with the stories of her subjects amounts to a powerful argument in favor of hyphenating the hell out of everything, or at least of embracing the hyphen’s ability to create new words and worlds. It also makes for good reading. Slamming the story of a Chinese-American student’s gender journey up against Johannes Gutenberg’s desire to publish poetry despite his father’s demand he live life as a blacksmith makes the reader do the work of the hyphen, connecting the seemingly disparate lives of two people who lived centuries and continents apart. The fact that Gutenberg’s struggle for belonging chimes so nicely with contemporary identity struggles drives home the universality of the experience and reveals the depths of the benefits of integrating our many selves. As she writes in the book, “Every American is hyphenated. And every American is on a journey.”
Language nerds will also greatly appreciate the way Mahdavi humanizes the history of grammar. For instance, maybe everyone in New York City knows this already, but it was news to me that people used to put a hyphen between “New” and “York” to maintain grammatical consistency with other adjective-noun phrases. The paper of record’s masthead used to read The New-York Times. Newsies used to hock the New-York Daily News. People used to live in New-Jersey and New-Hampshire. History buffs joined the New-York Historical Society, and they still do, thanks largely to multicultural activists fighting against a xenophobic movement led by conservative NYC city councilmembers and amplified by Theodore Roosevelt, who thought Americans should “unsparingly condemn” anyone who championed their hyphenated identities. This unsparing condemnation applied even to the hyphen itself.
As first- and second-generation immigrants increasingly become “the face of higher education,” and as battles about whether to keep or drop hyphens continue to rage, Mahdavi’s compelling histories offer guidance for a way out of a struggle that binds us all within so many unhelpful and frankly boring binaries. The book rules. Go pick it up.