Tuesday, 29 May 2012

On tomorrow and to-morrow and to morrow

A correspondent has been reading Dickens, and writes to ask why to-day, to-night, and to-morrow were used with hyphens, and when did the practice cease.

The origins of the practice lie in etymology: the three words were originally (in Old and Middle English) a preposition (to) followed by a separate word (dæg, niht, morwen). As a sense of their use as single notions developed, so the two elements were brought together in writing, but with considerable variation in usage, seen from the earliest records (tonight, to night, to-night).

The view that they should be written as separate words was reinforced when Johnson listed them under to as to day, to morrow, and to night (with no hyphen). Nineteenth-century dictionaries (Worcester, Ogilvie, Webster...) opted for the hyphen in all three words, and this was further reinforced when dialectologists included other forms. Joseph Wright, in his English Dialect Dictionary, hyphenates them all, and adds to-year (= ‘this year’, in general dialect use in Britain and Ireland) and to-morn (= ‘tomorrow’, especially in N England - he has examples from Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, and Lancashire). In passing, he also has some nice examples of to-night meaning ‘the night just past’, as in I had slept well to-night, recorded in the English south-west.

The OED shows hyphenated examples throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. Latest examples are of to-day (1912), to-night (1908), and to-morrow (1927, with a possible further example as late as 1959). I have personal experience of all three words continuing to be hyphenated as late as the 1970s, as for some years now I’ve been editing the poetry of John Bradburne, who died in 1979, and in all his writing he consistently hyphenates. But he is a poet very much aware of the past, and regularly uses archaisms.

The current online OED says simply ‘also as two words and with hyphen’, though this is likely to be revised, given that hyphens were dropped from the eigtth edition of the Concise Oxford in 1990. The steady disappearance of the usage in the 20th century was influenced by Fowler, who in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage comes out against it: ‘The lingering of the hyphen, which is still usual after the to of these words, is a very singular piece of conservatism’. He blames printers for its retention, in a typical piece of Fowlerish irony: ‘it is probably true that few people in writing ever dream of inserting the hyphen, its omission being corrected every time by whose who profess the mystery of printing.’ Today, it’s rare to see it even mentioned as an issue. It doesn’t even merit an entry in Pam Peters’ Cambridge Guide to English Usage.


Alexander Bochkov said...

It's interesting to see a similar origin of the word "today" in some languages spoken in Europe.

e.g. in German "heute" comes from hiu tagu (literally, on this day). In Russian "segodnja" literally means "of this day." In French, "aujourd'hui" means ""on the day of this day."

Sue Hudson said...

I was interested to read this as a friend working in the Houses of Parliament told me that it is only recently that they have started using 'tomorrow', instead of to-morrow.

DC said...

NIce instance. Any way of finding out just how recent is 'recent' here?

rotreg said...

I remember not so long ago people used to hyphonate e-mail. Very odd to look at now, but if you pick up a book called E by Matt Beaumont (not very good), an email epistolary set in an advertising agency written around 1995 they alway write e-mail. It feels like once the novelty of a new compound word wears off so does the hyphon.

Anonymous said...

the same in Romanian- "astazi" which means "this day". it comes as a compound word but I have found the word being spelt "asta-zi" in books from the end of 19th century and before World War I.

DC said...

rotreg: Yes, there is a general trend for compounds to move from having the elements spaced to having them hyphenated to having them solid (as in the case of email). 'Flower pot', 'flower-pot', and 'flowerpot' show the three stages in operation.

Liz said...

In Turkish it today becomes 2 words bu gün (literal translation - this day) and tomorrow 1 word yarın. Go figure!

Anonymous said...

Well, my source may not compete on literary terms, but I can beat your “1970s” by a few years. My children own some second-hand Postman Pat books written by John Cunliffe in the 1980s. From Postman Pat’s Tractor Express (first published 1983, this edition 1984, Scholastic Book Services) we have:

“She’ll have to stay here until to-morrow,” said Pat, “but the egg will do nicely for my tea.”

And from Postman Pat’s Thirsty Day (first published 1984, this edition 1985, Scholastic Book Services) we have:

“It’s a real scorcher to-day,” said Pat to Jess, as they drove along.

Somehow we have also acquired a later edition of the Thirsty Day book, in this case published by Scholastic Publications in 1996, and by that time the hyphen had disappeared.

Whoever would have thought that the goings on in Greendale would be so linguistically interesting?

Mark L

Ben said...

Italian also has stamattina (this morning), stanotte (tonight), and stasera (this evening) which obviously come from "questa ___"

However, "oggi" (today) is much more extreme, dropping a good majority of the full "questo giorno." I looked it up to find out why, and it appears it's because the compound came directly from Latin's "hoc die" in this case.

Mark Gelder said...

To-night on a 1958 football team-sheet.

Doug Ewell said...

The manually operated scoreboard Yankee Stadium that was in use into the 1940s included a display of the next day's game, as "TO-MORROW 3-15 PM N.Y VS. ST. LOU".

"Baseball" itself was originally "base ball," and later "base-ball."

Anonymous said...

I've been typing my father's WWll letters( 1942-1945) and he uses the hyphon in many words. I'm typing them as is, to keep the letters close to the originals

DC said...

Quite right. One should respect the punctuation practices of earlier times.