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Minding the gap

New-York's forgotten hyphen obscures a shameful legacy and serves as a timely reminder of the power of erasure.
Published onJun 02, 2021
Minding the gap

Pardis Mahdavi’s new book Hyphen gets the Paris Review treatment in the form of an excerpt on New York’s lost punctuation mark. Anyone who’s been to the New-York Historical Society building has probably wondered about the grammatical oddity embedded in its facade. It turns out that the story behind its absence in modern renderings of the city and state’s name is a rather sordid one:

What Curran either didn’t know, or wanted to erase, was the fact that up until the late 1890s, cities like “New-York” and “New-Jersey” were usually hyphenated to be consistent with other phrases that had both a noun and an adjective. In 1804, when the “New-York Historical Society” was founded, therefore, hyphenation was de rigueur. The practice of hyphenating New York was adhered to in books and newspapers, and adopted by other states. Even the New York Times featured a masthead written as The NewYork Times until the late 1890s.

It was only when the pejorative phrasing of “hyphenated Americans” came into vogue in the 1890s, emboldened by Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen speech, that the pressure for the hyphen’s erasure came to pass.

The tale serves as a perfect example of the paradoxical silliness and power of culture wars. A buck and a quarter later, the turn-of-the-century war on punctuation seems almost absurd. In time, the hyphen seems to have won. Today’s political and cultural discourse readily acknowledges the complexity and diversity of Americans, with enough hyphens to make a Bull Moose sputter.

At the same time, the campaign was successful not only in changing the names of thousands of places throughout the country by removing the hyphen (and, given the topic of the book, likely much more), but in partially erasing itself. No one stares at the gap between a New York ‘w’ and ‘Y’ and wonders what used to be there. And few look at the dash that still graces the Historical Society’s building and suspect a legacy of racism and xenophobia.

There’s no special insight here, other than a helpful reminder for us all to be as attentive to absence as we are to presence. The scales are very different, but the centennial of the nearly unremembered Tulsa Massacre and the recent attempts to forget what happened on January 6, 2021 are poignant examples of the power of erasure to remove from history not just a chosen target, but knowledge of the fact that they ever existed in the first place.

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