Let’s Ditch the e-Hyphen Now

When email first appeared in the public sphere in the early 1990s, it was a blending of “electronic” and “mail.” Oh, we were so young and technologically naive back then! I remember using a boxy beige terminal to “e-mail” with students at a sister university when I was in college. Email at that time required negotiating eye-numbing green text on a black screen, and following directions from a sheet of paper taped to the desk with a series of code entries. By the time I graduated college, Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL had turned email into a much more user-friendly affair.

Associated Press Stylebook editors officially turned “E-mail” into “email” in 2011. Many of us had already moved past the AP style and adopted the hyphen-less version, both privately and professionally. The hyphen was dead weight, particularly in the Age of Email and Texting; brevity is king. I think of hyphenates as the “missing link” of language. Newly minted blended words often get the hyphen treatment for a sort of probationary period. (“Today” was once “to-day,” as “tomorrow” was once “to-morrow”!)

But why did it take almost 20 years to finish the blending of “electronic” and “mail”? The Internet has had a major impact on language; in the need to use written words on the web, in the creation of new words based on Internet-related activities and ideas, and in the evolution of those words. We are the lucky spectators of the quickening pace of language evolution, sped up by the quickening pace of technology. Twenty years to go from “electronic mail” to “email” probably doesn’t seem very fast to modern eyes. But consider our friend “today” — it lived as two words for centuries before gaining its hyphen about 500 years ago. Printers, calligraphers and writers carried that hyphen all the way through the early part of the 20th century. It took almost 1,000 years for “to day” to become “today,” and the hyphenated version stuck around for centuries in between! The fact that “e-mail” became “email” in less than 20 years is actually incredible.

As an editor, I now contend with e-commerce, e-business, e-banking and e-books; these electronic versions of real-world activities are still held down by the hyphen. These hyphenated up-and-comers will fade away or find a foothold in daily usage and lose the hyphen, just as the following terms did: “cry-baby,” “ice-cream,” and  “pigeon-hole.”

Technology speeds up so much in our daily lives and the written word is not immune. The joke is probably on me. I spend time worrying about terminology in order to make language as precise and powerful as possible, but I suspect in the near future we won’t bother with the “e” at all. After all, when everyone is banking online, why call it anything other than banking? When all books are uploaded and downloaded, what is the point of declaring them electronic?

Personally, I’m a fan of following in the footsteps of email, and ditching the hyphen for all “e” terms. My reasoning is simple: The majority of people will understand what is meant without the hyphen. In the same way that e-mail became email, e-commerce should be allowed to live as ecommerce. In the age of ever-faster computers, is there really a need to slow down language?