short takes

Hyphen Heaven

Time magazine's nine-decade celebration of the Homeric epithet
August 23, 2007

Time magazine has unlocked its archives on its revamped Web site, and I’m giddy with excitement. Now, free of charge, I can revel in Time’s nine-decade celebration of the Homeric epithet. As quickly as I can move my fingers on the keyboard, I can find out whom Time has called “snaggle-toothed” (author and cultural arbiter Tom Wolfe, among others, I was surprised to discover).

Teeth, in fact, have been the inspiration for many of Time’s hyphenated epithets. Joe DiMaggio was “squirrel-toothed” in 1947, then, inexplicably, he was “beaver-toothed” a year later. One of my favorites is from a 1938 issue, which told of a “gat-toothed spinstress” who, at the age of seventy, was marrying a twenty-two-year-old man. Initially I wondered if “gat” was a misprint of “gap,” but a trip to the dictionary suggests Time knew what it was implying. Derived from “goat,” the word can mean lustful or wanton.

Early Time-style, compressed and hyphen-happy (and still enlivening the magazine’s pages), was the invention of Briton Hadden, who cofounded Time with Henry Luce, his Hotchkiss and Yale classmate. According to Isaiah Wilner, a recent Hadden biographer, Hadden read Homer in the original Greek and kept a copy of The Iliad (with its “wine-dark sea”) on his desk as he edited every word that went into the magazine. As editor-in-chief, he often penciled new epithets into copy, letting out a whoop when the right words could be joined by a hyphen.

Eyes have provided Time with more inspiration than perhaps any other part of the body. Sometimes the magazine resorts to a hackneyed “bleary-eyed,” “steely-eyed,” or “hawk-eyed,” but it also produces gems—like “bedroom-eyed ballet dancer and international superhunk Mikhail Baryshnikov,” in 2003, and the dead-on “raccoon-eyed” for J. Edgar Hoover, from 2004. Occasionally, Time has a foot fetish. Actress Mae Murray was “flutter-footed” in 1929, and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was, inexplicably, “sock-footed” that same year. In 1933, Time noticed that Texas politician Tom Connally was “small-footed.”

But sometimes Time seems to decide that it hasn’t done justice to a subject. That happened in 1936 when the magazine described Spanish Premier Don Manuel Azana as “sack-faced,” but barely more than a month later found that he was actually “frog-faced.” (Three years earlier, he had been “bag-jowled.”)

Under Hadden’s watch, and perhaps his itchy pencil, Time wrote of a “leering-visaged ghost” (1926), “bottle-nosed clerks” (1925), a “splay-nosed” Jack Dempsey (1927), and a “snouty-faced amateur of rococo amours” (1923, Time’s inaugural year).

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Present-day Time may be more abstemious, but the Homeric epithet lives on in its pages. In 1996, the magazine wrote about “lizard-visaged country singer Lyle Lovett.” An article from 2004 describes “blue-lab-coat-garbed artists,” which, considering the triple hyphens, may have been a writer’s homage to earlier days.

What is the most inventive epithet that Time has published? After much archive browsing, I had a candidate from a 1956 article: “spaghetti-bearded Red Boss Ho Chi Minh.” With that description, Time finally gave Ho a unique honorific. Up to then, he had to share “goat-bearded” with another Red boss, East Germany’s Walther Ulbricht. But with a little more archive browsing, I discovered that Time decided that “spaghetti-bearded” didn’t quite do Ho justice. In 1958, the North Vietnamese president was promoted to “vermicelli-bearded Red Boss Ho Chi Minh.”

If Ho had also been snaggle-toothed and shaggy-browed, what multi-hyphened appellation might have become one of Time’s archival jewels?

Tom Grubisich edits the Web site of The World Bank.