March 4, 2024 | Rome, Italy

P-/retty p-/lease

By |2018-03-21T19:03:43+01:00December 21st, 2014|Area 51|
Before computerized pagination, word surgery was by X-Acto knife.

yphenation once ruled my life. That “cat” read “cat” and not “c-/at” on a printed page mattered more than wines, fountains or girls. And seeing “cat” as “c-/at” was as common as “a-/djust” or “u-/ntouchable.”

I once ran English-language papers in Rome. Far too young for such a responsibility, I focused on details to compensate for my larger bewilderment.

The equipment of the 1970s was bought preset. Once locked into Italian syllabic hyphenation, these pre-software machines remained rigidly loyal. English-language phonetics seemed to offend their integrity.

The only way around ruinously nonsensical hyphenation was to ask Italian composing room employees to perform X-Acto knife surgery so that the dangling “c” in “c-/at” would be delicately removed from the offending line and pasted to the next, like the reattachment of a finger. Asking grumpy grown men to move sticky little letters for no apparent reason (to them) made you liable to curses and threats. They were artists and workers not surgeons, they complained. Remedial labor wasn’t covered in their contracts.

Naturally, I was seen as a lunatic, and a disruptive one. Once, after a protest by the paste-up team, which contended I was wasting time and taxing their Latin patience, a publisher came to see me in my cubicle. He began his speech — which I memorized in time — with the line, “You know, this is not the New York Times…”

In my defense, I told him that “cat,” whether a Manhattan or Rome “cat,” shouldn’t have its “c” cut from its “at” by a hyphen. What cat, let alone reader, deserved such severance? And what reader wouldn’t be conscious of “unconscious” laid out as “u-/nconscious,” condemning the letter “u” to tumble alone into the abyss and allowing a line of newspaper text to begin with a hyphen and the widowed letter “n.” To which the publisher, who did have a default, returned to his “not the New York Times” setting.

A decade later, in the mid-1980s, came brain-powered software, which I assumed would fix all this. I proudly ran the first fully computer-run and paginated daily in Italy, our equipment seen as a marvel even by local powerhouse competitors, who couldn’t yet use the technology because union regulations barred the layoff of composing room employees, which pagination would, and eventually did, make redundant. But even our intergalactic system came with the same hyphenating shortcomings. The default hyphenation remained Italian since phonetic dispositions were hardwired into the software. Getting English-language hyphenation required buying a British or American system, well outside our modest means.

The new-age line breaks were often weirdly creative, appearing to belong to no language or, in the case of “weir/-dly” or “devastati/-ng,” leaning toward Vietnamese, in which “dly” and “ng” were feasible. My own byline also veered, as in “Christop/-her,” a gender change minus the hormones, or hormone itself could become “ho/-rmone,” in which the “ho” was again Vietnamese (or worse) and “rmone” perhaps a band, or a back-alley murmur to loose women.

When composing room lieutenants balked at my surgical demands I’d wait until they took a break to make the changes myself, risky business since union rules allowed only Italian employees to make physical contact with chaste pages otherwise untouched by sullying American hands.

Still I couldn’t stand around when our lead story twice had “disaster” appearing as “d-/isaster,” as if the word itself had been assassinated, leaving “d-” widowed and “isaster” as entry into the tomb.

Incredibly, my hyphenation crusade lasted for all the years I ran print publications, from 1977 to the early 2000s, when the availability of more supple software finally brought syllabic hyphenation under systematic human control (and English usage grew in use).

But control wasn’t foolproof, not even in 2000. Running a paper in Prague with mixed Czech and American technology still saw occasional Slavic insurgencies, with local software fond of kissing consonants — “ecc-/entric,” “unconsc-/ious,” “nays-/ayer,” “pl-/ease.”

Such rebellions have mostly vanished. Eager-to-please smart machines now ensure humans can’t be stupid, unless they happen to swear by auto-correct, a pox on text-message houses, with “at” emerging as “ate” and “vagaries” reshaped into “vaginas.” The smart new world is almost certain to let the word “disaster” emerge intact, if only you — curse p-/rogress — you hadn’t meant “disable.”

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.