In an oft-repeated story, a physics undergraduate is asked how to use a barometer to calculate the height of a building. The student’s initial response—tie a string to the barometer, lower the barometer from the top of the building to the ground, and then measure the length of the string—receives an F for its willful disregard of the spirit of the assignment, whereupon the student (no slouch) tosses off a handful of more conventionally “scientific” solutions to the problem and, being a pathological smart-alec, finishes by suggesting yet another approach: Offer to give the building custodian the barometer in exchange for the answer.  (See

There are several morals to this story. These include:

  • The fable as a short form of didactic communication is alive and well.
  • A smart-alec who confronts an unimaginative or ill-humored superior does so at some personal risk but may get away with it in the end. (Or not. Most versions of this particular fable do not in fact mention the student’s final grade.)
  • Multiple approaches to a problem may be fruitful, though some may be more fruitful than others.
  • As a corollary to the preceding, it’s always a good idea to have a back-up approach in case your original sally does not end well. In other words, you may have to try multiple approaches before you find the one that gets you an A.

We have recently had occasion to revisit the third and fourth of these morals in trying to find the answer to a lexicographical question that one of our readers recently asked us, namely: What do you call the units immediately to the left and right of a hyphen?

This question is actually something of a marushka doll whose outermost container (at least in the domain of lexicography) is “How do you come up with the (or a) word for something?” and whose contents may be said to include the following progeny:

  • Is there a term for undifferentiated hyphenated units of unspecified number (the lexical analog to pop-its [the beads]), a term for just a pair of units separated by hyphens (like nunchucks), or for separate terms designating the left and right members of a hyphenated pair (say, Tafts and Hartleys) or some other fine distinction comparable to left vs. right?
  • And what about items separated by a dash? Different term(s)? (Different doll?)
  • What if the term we’re seeking simply doesn’t exist?
  • Where to begin? (We’ll save the question of where to end for later, giving away only that we have so far been unable to answer our reader’s original query.) With the idea that the process of discovery can be as rewarding as the discovery itself, here are some approaches we have employed in our search for the nomenclature of the hyphen’s neighbors (numbered not because we have run out of bullets but because they represent the approximate order in which we have tried them):

    1. Following the example of our reader, start by asking your friends, relations, and reference librarians for the answer to your question. (That the clever physics student saves this option for last is a tip-off that we are in a fable rather than an actual classroom.) You may get the answer you’re looking for and get to keep your barometer for future use. Like the other strategies in this list, this one is open-ended, given the number of one’s potential interlocutors, though presumably you only get to ask each one of these the hyphen question once.
    2. Look up hyphen in the dictionary in the hope that the definition, etymology, or usage note provided for the lemma will contain the word you’re looking for. If hyphen doesn’t yield the desired result, check out its neighbors on the page or, if the dictionary is in electronic form, its links. “The dictionary”may of course turn out to be multiple dictionaries in multiple media. (You have presumably already consulted the medium of your youth—in our case, Mom—in step 1.) “The dictionary” may also be a foreign-language dictionary (see below).
    3. Try a thesaurus. There is much to be said for free association, the thesaurus’s stock in trade, when you’re looking for a mot juste. Naturally, because the thesaurus doesn’t supply definitions for its entries, you may find yourself with a return ticket to the dictionary to ascertain whether an unfamiliar word is the one you were looking for. If nothing else, if you didn’t already look up dash, a good thesaurus will remind you to do so.
    4. Try a foreign-language dictionary. Maybe the word for hyphen (or dash) in another language will shed light on the term(s) in English, not an unreasonable possibility, given the history of printing and the diffusion of the technology in all its parts from the continent to England.
    5. Manuals of style, books and articles on orthography and typography are all worth a look.
    6. The Internet, of course, is both cornucopia and Pandora’s box. Enough said.

    Enough for now, any way. We will have more to say in subsequent postings to this blog about our quest for the hyphen’s neighbors in dictionaries and thesauri, and in writings on style, orthography, and typography. In short, something further will follow of this Masquerade. Stay tuned.