It's small. It's flat. It's black. And according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, its numbers are shrinking. Welcome to the world of the hyphen. Having been around since at least the birth of printing, the hyphen is apparently enjoying a difficult time at the moment.
The sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words, many of them two-word compound nouns. Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, pigeon-hole has finally achieved one word status as pigeonhole and leap-frog is feeling whole again as leapfrog.
The blame, as is so often the case, has been put at least in part on electronic communication. In our time-poor lifestyles, dominated by the dashed-off [or should that be dashed off or dashedoff] e-mail, we no longer have time to reach over to the hyphen key.
And English, being a language lacking any kind of governing body and instead relying on studies of usage, is changing to keep up.
Shorter OED editor Angus Stevenson doesn't want anybody to get angry over the hyphen's decline.
"We only reflect what people in general are reading. We have been tracking this for some time and we've been finding the hyphen is used less and less," he says. "When you are sending e-mails, and you have to type pretty fast, on the whole it's easier to type without hyphens. Ordinary people are not very conscious of the fact of whether they are putting hyphens or not."
Formerly hyphenated words split in two:
Formerly hyphenated words unified in one: