Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Hammacher Schlemmer crazy making hyphen shortage problem.

Paying attention always costs. In this case, the cost is the hour or two it’s taken me to work on this post. It all began when Elaine ordered an item from Hammacher Schlemmer. But I’m not blaming Elaine. The item arrived with a catalogue. I started to read.

I don’t know how long Hammacher Schlemmer has had hyphen trouble. Judging from the company’s name, I would say a long time. The catalogue’s cover announces “America’s Longest Running Catalog.” Yet the catalogue is not devoted to running gear. Nor is it especially long — only eighty pages. Do you see trouble ahead?

Virtually every item in the Hammacher Schlemmer “Father’s Day 2015” catalogue is identified in a headline that begins with The and ends with a product-name noun followed by a period.¹ All modifiers are attributive — that is, they precede the final noun: The Levitating Lamp. The Tabletop Fireplace. So far, so good. But again and again, Hammacher Schlemmer piles up modifiers that turn these headlines into exceedingly strange descriptions, almost always hyphen-free — or hyphen free.² At their strangest, these descriptions have the flavor of awkwardly literal translations of Homeric epithets — say, “great glittering-helmeted Hector” [μέγας κορυθαίολος Ἕκτωρ ]:

The Brightness Zooming Natural Light Lamp.

The Eye Fatigue Preventing Reading Glasses.

The Intruder Discouraging Television Mimic.

The Knee Pain Relieving Walking Shoes.

The Thinning Hair Boar Bristle Brush.

The Under Seat Rolling Carry On.

The Voice Clarifying Over Ear Amplifier.
My comparison would work better if Homer’s poetry had more consumer goods. But one Hammacher Schlemmer headline is very nearly Homeric:
The Walk On Air Strap Sandals.
Hermes might like a pair of those.³

It may be that there’s an arch, Martini-tinged sense of humor at work in these headlines, a status marker of the sort that Paul Fussell wrote about in his book Class . If so, I think that the comedy comes at the cost of clarity.

The Intruder Discouraging Television Mimic, by the way, is old wine is a new bottle. Or as Hammacher Schlemmer would say, The Containing Old Wine New Bottle.

Related reading
All OCA punctuation posts (Pinboard)
Living on hyphens
Mr. Hyphen and Mr. Faulkner
One more from Mr. Hyphen

¹ I count one exception in eighty pages: The Hard Floor Scrubber with Spray Applicator. Or in true catalogue syntax: The Spray Applicator Included Hard Floor Scrubber.

² I count three hyphens in eighty pages: The Canadian Year-Round Rain Barrel, The One-Acre Natural Attractant Mosquito Trap, The Spring-Loaded Running Shoes.

³ Reading his translation of Odyssey 5 to an audience in 2001, the classicist Stanley Lombardo departed from the printed text and spoke of Hermes’s “golden air shoes.” I cannot resist inventing one Hammacher Schlemmer epithet: The God Made Reality Depicting Shield.

[Mary Norris’s Between You & Me (2015) and Edward N. Teall’s Meet Mr. Hyphen (1937) got me noticing hyphens, and their absence.]

comments: 3

Anonymous said...

High fends the cat, a log
Splitting words with merely space;
Hector them for running long!
Paying attention costs the race.

Daughter Number Three said...

Though they are probably not any more confusing than some of the ones you cited that lacked a hyphen, I can imagine that even the H S copywriters realized phrases such as "Round Rain Barrel" and "Loaded Running Shoes" sound like product attributes of their own.

Fresca said...

I'd like a job writing catalog copy for them--I could put my Greek to use!