Let's Lose the Hyphens

October 26, 1994|By BOB ENGLEHART

Hartford -- As the millennium approaches, we have the opportunity to leave behind in the dustbin of the 20th century some outmoded, destructive ideas, devices and practices that have far outlived their purpose, if they ever had one. Hyphens, for instance.

Hyphens are the offal of punctuation. They're too often used by lazy writers and propagandists who are attempting to build an idea on the cheap. They clutter up prose and no poet worth his pentameter uses them. Almost all hyphens could be eliminated, starting with those linguistic aberrations attempting to describe our ethnic heritage.

We are not African-American, Asian-American, Italian-American, Irish-American or Polish-American. American is an adjective here. It limits and qualifies us. It describes who we are, not who we might have been.

We are American African, American Asian, American Italian, American Irish or American Poles. Anyone of us born in this country or who has lived here longer than one rent payment is American first, whether we like it or not.

A friend of mine traveled to Africa. She returned confused, saying that although she is black, she was not accepted as an African by her hosts. She had come to them from an alien culture. She is an American. On the return flight, she said she felt like a woman without a country, which is easy to understand. She identified with Africa without ever having lived there.

Friends who are immigrants to this country bring back similar stories. Their extended family in their homeland tells them they have been Americanized -- that, although their blood was formed in the marrow of distant lands, it now pumps through an American heart.

I happen to be an American German. I was born in Indiana. If I were German first, I would be eating sour beef and be making twice as much salary with five weeks' paid vacation every year. But the fact is, I'm American first. If I visited Germany, I might be beaten by skinheads because I'm a foreigner.

Multiculturalism is a myth. And while we're at it, let's give that word a rest. There is no such thing as multiculturalism. Call it for what it is. Subculturalism. We have only one culture, and it's made by all the subcultures that contribute to it. Our music, fashions, fads, art, literature, laws and politics are envied and copied all over the world. It's an American culture built by the different subcultures that live in guaranteed freedom, each one making its own mark.

I belong to several subcultures because in America, we approach society as if it were a salad bar. I am a white male (the most often blamed, criticized and verbally abused subculture), New Englander, Christian, cigar smoker and baseball fan (the most rapidly vanishing subculture).

Our hyphenation notion was invented and continues to be nurtured by a handful of hooligans (American Irish subcultural word) who are trying to build careers by keeping us divided. If we can't eliminate hyphens altogether, then maybe we can at least force writers to get a license to use them, much as we now regulate the disposal of toxic wastes. We can't just go around burying dangerous garbage anywhere we please, and we can't continue to hyphenate as we have in the past.

We can learn to get along without almost all hyphens. They're too confusing, and this country's got all the trouble it can handle, confusion-wise.

Bob Englehart is the Hartford Courant's editorial cartoonist.

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