Two Shall Be as One

The gospel of merging words

In the beginning, there were two words. And people went forth and used the words separately or together as needed. And it was good.

But there came a time when the two words cleaved unto each another, becoming as one, and it was not so good. Some dictionaries cast the newlyweds into the desert and shunned them, while others welcomed them into their pages.

But until they are recognized universally as having been united in holy etymology, they will be the subject of aspersions cast upon them.

Consider, for example, “healthcare.” It was brought forth as two words, both of them being nouns: “health” and “care.” But the people brought them together as a compound adjective modifying another noun, often “costs.” And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth as to whether a hyphen was needed to connect the two adjectives. And the debate raged, with those who were more catholic offering acceptance of the marriage as “health care costs,” and the protestants insisting that the only acceptable alternative was “health-care costs.” And at some point, probably in the 1970s, someone made a Solomonic decision and said, what the hell. Let’s just make it one word.

And there was joy in the house of Webster’s, which welcomed “healthcare” in 2004, in the Fourth Edition of the New World College Dictionary, and also in the New Oxford American Dictionary, begat in 2005. But many of the elders scorned the newcomer, amongst them the ancient Oxford English Dictionary, the house of Merriam-Webster, and the much-heralded Associated Press Stylebook, which shuns even a hyphen in “health care costs.” American Heritage is torn asunder, listing “healthcare” only as an alternate spelling to “health care.”

The people, ignoring the advice of their dictionaries, have embraced “healthcare,” approaching its altar far more often than that of any other form—as a noun or adjective. And even the wise sage Garner’s Modern American Usage says that the universal adoption of “healthcare” “seems inevitable.”

But the passage of “healthcare” through the gates into the lexicon does not guarantee that its brethren can follow so easily. “Airstrike,” for example, was codified in WNW in its Third Edition in 1988, and proselytized by AP, but widely shunned by the populace outside of the AP’s acolytes, and is absent from even such reform literature as NOAD. And “firetruck,” which WNW also clasped to its bosom in 1988, as an Americanism, is forsaken by nearly everyone else.

But the righteousness of “healthcare” seems to be gathering the flocks around a close cousin: “childcare.” While no major gospel yet accepts “childcare” as pure—though American Heritage accepts it as an alternate spelling—lo, the multitudes have rallied to its cause, using “childcare” as a noun almost as frequently as they do “child care.” (“Child-care” is the most frequent compound adjective.) This despite the preaching of AP, which mandates that “child” and “care” be forever separate, without even a hyphen allowed to come between them.

Which once again proves that consulting a dictionary religiously will not necessarily provide heavenly guidance.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.