I’ve written before about visual metaphor in writing—the idea that ALL CAPS should be interpreted as shouting (i.e., big letters imply big voice)—and here is another example.
When we create compound words in English, we have three strategies to write them. Compound words can be written with a space between the two words, such as in “real estate”; they can be written with a hyphen, such as in “well-being”; and they can be written together, such as in “doorbell.” These are referred to as open, hyphenated and closed, respectively.
How do we decide which strategy we use in compounding a word? At first, it seems random. After all, we can find the same word compounded in multiple ways, depending on the writer. Take “well-being.” Google returns over 13 million results for “wellbeing,” over 2 billion results for “well-being” and over 22 million results for “well being.” Granted, the hyphenated version is most common, but the other versions are still quite pervasive.
In some cases, it’s more clear-cut. For example, there’s a need to differentiate “black bird” from “blackbird” and “black board” from “blackboard.” Granted, these examples have different stress patterns and are arguably quite different; words like “black board” are two non-compound words (an adjective plus a noun), whereas “blackboard” is a single, compound word.
It seems to me that the idea of visual metaphor may be behind our word-compounding strategy choices. I propose that words (at least nouns) written with a space are seen as most disconnected (by which I mean that the two compounding elements are perceived as having little to do with each other) or novel, whereas words written together as seen as most cohesive, and words written with a hyphen are somewhere in between. Things may be written as two words when they are new concepts, then make their way to hyphenation and finally one-wordedness as they become more widespread.
I say this because I don’t believe there are any single, compound words whose meaning would change if you compound them using a different strategy. (noting, as i mentioned previously, that some compound words actually become two separate words when written with a space; these cases wouldn’t figure into this scenario.)
Consider the evolution of the name “electronic mail,” which was used at the technology’s infancy, to “e-mail,” which was used until very recently, finally giving way to “email,” which seems to be today’s preference. (The truncation of the word “electronic” further demonstrates the technology’s growing pervasiveness.) And how about the word “net-work,” which was hyphenated in the 1800’s, an act that would be unthinkable today?
This is only a first musing on the concept, and there is, of course, much more analysis and consideration to be done to form a fuller picture.