From the other room and muffled by a section of New York Times, C sends me a question.
“What does this word mean? ‘Subelite’.”
“Subelite? It’s a type of sound-deadening insulation used in new construction.”
“Be serious. What does it mean?”
“Hmmm. Subelite. Oh yes, I’ve seen the ads. Valerie Bertinelli drank it for one month and she lost thirty pounds. Mostly gas.”
The paper is lowered as I enter the room to receive a glare.
“Check the on-line dictionary”, I suggest.
“I did. There is no such word in English.”
“How are they using it?”
“In the paper, it is used to describe some runners.”
“Oh of course. Subelite runners. They are the ones from sub-Saharan Subelia. Their bones are hollow. They circle the globe, winning marathons and medallions that they mail home to their kinfolk who melt them down and recast them into practical farm implements.”
Again the glare.
We google, and suddenly I realize the problem.
“Oh! It’s ‘sub-elite’. It’s a type of athletic designation. Somewhere below ‘elite’. They just didn’t bother with the hyphen. Lazy New York Times writer.”
“Maybe it doesn’t need a hyphen.”
“According to the dictionary, it doesn’t exist without a hyphen.”
“You know, I was reading a while ago about the hyphen and how it is falling out of usage. Also, about how it is often confused with the ‘dash’.”
“Subelite runners do love their fifty-yard dash.”
Third glare, but I continue.
“I think the hyphen is our friend. Not our best friend, which is the comma, but a very close friend. If anything, like the Germans, I use it all too often. It’s just so helpful when you can’t find the right word but have two or three before you which, when linked, get the idea across.”
C, again behind the wall of paper, wonders, “How long before ‘subelite’ shows up in the dictionary, do you think?”.
“Usus quam penes arbitium est, et ius et norma loquendi.”*
I can’t see it, but I know I have received a fourth glare. C has now used up his effective daily glare-quota.
*Usage trumps rules, in the governance of speech.