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Movie Review: The Back-up Plan (Why is there a hyphen in it?)

Apr 24, 2010 | Language, Movies

Movie poster for "The Back-Up Plan"

Well, I didn’t actually see The Back-up Plan, and never will. I don’t need to: I “know” that it will be lousy. There: end of review.

Now the interesting part: when I saw a real review for this movie in the paper today, I thought there was a typo in the title. Why is there a hyphen in “back-up”? Me, I have backup plans. So I checked, and that’s the official title. OK, well, it’s a crappy, formulaic romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez. It wouldn’t be surprising if they had botched the title and no one noticed.

Just to be sure, I read a plot summary to see if I was missing something: maybe it’s a pun and the movie involves some sort of plan for getting back up (like these good people, who help people get back up on their feet after spinal cord injuries). Nope, it seemed pretty straightforward: artificial insemination as a backup plan. (And reading the plot summary confirmed my initial judgment about the quality of the movie.)

Now, I didn’t think that the hyphenated usage was wrong, just unusual and archaic. It seems like a compound adjective that’s been around long enough to lose its hyphen. Like “online”: no one writes “on-line” any more, but I remember writing it that way a mere 15 years ago. So I went and looked around the Web, but unfortunately this is one of those cases where Google thinks it’s smarter than you but isn’t, so you can’t search specifically for the hyphenated usage (unless I’m missing something embarrassingly obvious). Wordnik has some recent examples of hyphenated usage, strangely concentrated in the Wall Street Journal, which apparently is sticking with that form for their stylebook.

I’m nothing like a proper linguist, so the best I could do was some paging through Google results for anecdotal results, plus a quick perusal of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (where “back-up” appears more often in transcripts of television and radio broadcasts than in “written” texts). Based on that haphazard research, I “confirmed” my suspicion that “backup” is far more common than “back-up.”

A dictionary check sort of bears this out: My Webster’s Third New International and Random House Webster’s Unabridged Second Edition have “backup” but no mention of “back-up.” The OED Online has 1952 for its earliest citation of “back-up,” and 1956 for “backup.” Both forms are about equally represented in the rest of their citations, but those end in 1985, so that doesn’t tell me anything.

But the proof we need is in this citation from 1967:

Backup involves having one computer on-line and the other standing by

There! See that: “backup” is well-enough established in 1967 to be one word, but “on-line” is still hyphenated. No one hyphenates “on-line” any more, so no one should hyphenate “backup.” Q.E.D., yo.

Half-assed amateur linguistics research completed but still nothing better to do with my time, I went looking for another plot summary of the movie and happened to notice the poster (see image above), where they have the little to-do list, with the arrows rearranging things. At that point I remembered one of the OED‘s definitions for “back-up” was “with the back facing upwards,” i.e., upside down. So, I don’t know. I guess you could make the case that she had an upside-down plan.

But really, who cares? I know you don’t, and I have now wasted more time thinking and writing about the title of this stupid movie than I would have wasted if I had just gone and watched the damn thing. But at least I saved us both 10 bucks.

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