Thursday, September 30, 2010

knuckleheaded, hotheaded, ham-handed

I was interested in the occurrence of these words in the Asterisky Business article, specifically in their hyphenation.

The words appear in the following sentences:

In the fifth paragraph-
"...and then several more times in a ham-handed effort to get a roomful of sports reporters to retract or ignore his original use of the word."

And then in the second to last paragraph-
"I don't want Mr. McMackin punished for society's larger troubles any more than I want Prof. Henry Louis Gates or Sgt. James Crowley to bear sole racial responsibility for every inflexible cop or every hotheaded homeowner with an ego."

"And whether you believe it's the intolerance Crowley showed gates, or the intolerance Gates showed Crowley -- or the knuckleheaded intolerance Coach McMackin showed about lives different than his own -- it all gets you to the same place."

In each instance the word serves as an adjective, so why the difference in hyphenation? This is a good example of the evolution of words and how they change from two separate words, to hyphenated words, to a closed form. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary "ham-handed" and its derivatives are always hyphenated. "Knuckleheaded" is a closed compound.

Merriam-Webster lists "hotheaded" as a closed adjective but demonstrates its hyphenated use in the example: "He wrote a hot-headed letter." lists both versions, "hotheaded" and "hot-headed." This leads me to believe that there is not yet a consensus on the form of this word, and it is an example of the in-between on an evolutionary scale. Because it appears in the same paragraph as "knuckleheaded" the un-hyphenated form is appealing.

I'm still developing my understanding of compound adjectives and when they should be hyphenated, so please comment or correct me!


Chad said...

Yeah, this is a legitimate concern of yours, Samantha.

Regarding "hotheaded" and "knuckleheaded," my guess (which may be flawed) is that these adjectives are derived from their noun forms, which I understand to be the original and most common forms of the words. For example, "hotheaded" simply comes from the noun "hothead," which is a noun so common that it isn't hyphenated. Thus, when adapting the noun to fill an adjective role, all that was needed was to add the "-ed." Same story with "knuckleheaded."

But who knows? :)

Pat said...

Just a follow-up to Samantha's post and Chad's comment (both of which I was very glad to see): the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) sometimes has brief histories of the usage of words. You might try going to Hamilton and looking up these words to see if OED comments on them.