Have fun with 'Germanisms': Thoughts about hyphenated modifiers
Published: October 18, 2001
|Playing with hyphen-mad modifiers|
From my student days in the Iowa Writers Workshop years ago, I can still recall some of the extended, hyphenated modifiers, or so-called "Germanisms," with which we critiqued each other's literary attempts: the oh-my-God-the-pain poetry; the everyone-lets-you-down short stories; the isn't-this-great-because-it-happened-to-me novellas.
With our hyphen-mad modifiers it seemed we could nail down anything, including characters or settings in our own works--"a love-conquers-all dreamer in a cesspool-of-the-cosmos trailer park." Of course, as our writing matured (ahem), we used such Germanisms with discretion, knowing how fast they can grow tedious.
These hyper-hyphenated compound adjectives get their nickname from the Germanic pattern of stacking modifiers in front of the thing modified. Thus, the English "beer brewed with malt and hops" becomes "with malt and hops brewed beer" in the Germanic syntax. But English frontloading, with its hyphens, does more than change word order. It lends itself to quirky, theatrical expression, as well as to jargon ("mission-critical implementation") and campy excess. How excessive? Recently, a National Public Radio commentator went to this length:
"The oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-you-just-did-that-especially-in-light-of-what-you-said-at-the-beach-house-yesterday cringe."
One is easily seduced by the charms of Germanisms. First of all, they save words and simplify sentence structure. For example, why are schools of thought so often preceded by a Germanism, as in "the people-can-damn-well-decide-for-themselves school of thought"? Answer: Because school would be out by the time one said, "the school of thought in which people are considered to be able to decide damn well for themselves." An in-flight magazine author came up with this jet-speed labeling of Stephen King bashers:
"... subscribing to the King-is-trashy-fun-but-not-real-literature school of thought is a bit cliched."
Also seductive is the whimsical or sarcastic tone of Germanisms, as if spoken with exaggerated finger quotes. The form borrows the cachet of new or existing phrases--idioms, catch phrases, titles--when it turns them into compound adjectives. "I-am-woman-hear-me-roar vibes," snipes a Time reporter. Because any word can appear in a Germanism, a writer's stock of modifiers suddenly encompasses every utterance in the universe--a daunting, if empowering, notion.
As a shorthand with attitude, frontloaded modifiers are naturals for conversation, especially among youth. Germanisms lend authenticity to juvenile speech in fiction. "Is this the why-don't-you-grow-up part, Dad?" "Did you hear about my so-incredibly-embarrassing-I-wanted-to-die-on-the-spot thing at the dance?" A parent might prefer that the child build a vocabulary--"Did you hear about my contretemps?"--rather than rely on the relatively mindless and often sloppy Germanism. But would it ring true as dialogue?
Adults, too, including writers, sometimes use the form in a lazy way, avoiding the struggle for precision. One could say, "He's got that boy-do-I-love-it-when-my-enemies-get-shafted way of thinking," or, alternatively, "he feels Schadenfreude." But sometimes the lazy form can be livelier or even more precise. Germanisms certainly abound in quality writing. They abound in vulgar expression, too, where name-calling lends itself naturally to stacked-up shorthand. Hyphens used to fly like bullets in the old American Westerns: "Why you dad-gummed, no-good, yellow-bellied tub-o-guts!" In quoting some modern writers (in genteel company), one needs a bandoleer of "bleeps" as well as hyphens:
"You're a skinny-bleep snake motherbleeper nobody-to-nothing piece of street bleep." (Richard Price, Clockers)
The fun of strung-out Germanisms lies partly in the rapid-fire fusillade of words and images aimed at one noun, pronoun or adjective:
"I'm just the cream-soda-swilling ... overalls-over-candy-colored-latex-mini-kimono ... don't-bother-me-till-halftime kind of guy that society has made me." (Mark Leyner, Et Tu, Babe)
But two- or three-word Germanisms can have their own charms, including offbeat juxtapositions and plays on meanings: "Psychedelia-tinged guitar slingers" and "click-and-mortar retailers." Today such phrases are commonplace, almost expected, even if awkward new formations such as "faith-based charities" cause initial wincing. But it wasn't long ago that Germanisms were as welcome as a pestilence among America's language authorities.
|Not for everyone|
Writing in the 1920s, H.W. Fowler had no use for Germanisms, which he said reflected "the compression characteristic of journalese." In the 1960s, Wilson Follett blamed American advertisers for burdening our nouns with these mixed parts of speech agglutinated by hyphens. Such Germanisms, he charged, substituted contrived adjectives for articulated expression.
Rudolph Flesch hailed the creativity of certain hyphened modifiers such as "barefoot-boy-born-in-a-cabin credentials." But like Fowler, he considered such hyphenates as "a Chinese-dominated town" too forced, preferring "a town dominated by the Chinese."
The New Fowler's, too, suggests restraint when hyphenating becomes "burdensome." Restraint, however, is hardly the hallmark of American writing. In 1965, Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby helped elevate both journalese and Germanisms into high art. And the 1996 Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age by Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon counseled us to "embrace over-the-top" hyphenated words, such as "Russian-blood-and-Russian-soil-Green-back-to-nature mystic ideology."