Too closed up for comfort

I remember the first time I ever heard of Bangladesh. Except that back then it was still Bangla Desh. It had not yet been "closed up," as we wordsmiths call it.

In fact, it was still East Pakistan, to most of the world. And I was still a teenager, on my first visit to London. I was in a restaurant with some friends, and we somehow fell into conversation with an energetic busboy obviously from somewhere in what we today call South Asia, but he called his homeland by a name we had never heard before. He wanted to be sure we understood him, and so he wrote it down for us.

I can still see it in my mind's eye - the blue ballpoint ink on the back of the slightly damp white cocktail napkin, two short lines of capital letters almost an inch high: BANGLA DESH.

I had enough familiarity with the world map at the time to understand the improbable arrangement of East and West Pakistan (what were they thinking?) on either side of India. But the news of unrest in that part of the world had somehow blown by me. When, a few months later, in December 1971, the independence of a new republic was achieved, I thought of my friend the busboy.

Before my encounter in London, some Westerners were already beginning to use the term "Bangla Desh" ("land of the Bengals") instead of "East Pakistan." The newspaper articles that senators were inserting into the Congressional Record that spring spoke of "Bangla Desh," two words. When George Harrison and a number of his friends organized the celebrated "Concert for Bangla Desh" that summer, the place was known by a two-word name.

But as the new country made its way into the club of nations, its great cymbal-clash of a name was written as a single word: Bangladesh. This process of "closing up" elements to make new names or expressions applies to more mundane words, too. As terms become more familiar, and more settled in the language, they tend to close up.

This is as fundamental to the growth of language as the joining of bricks with mortar is to the building of a wall. "Today," "tomorrow," "weekend" all had hyphens at some point, and in older books they still do.

Some of the combinations are more felicitous than others, however, and some are a little ahead of their time. And some of them get into what I think of as "specialist close-up syndrome."

For people in the business of feeding the masses in university dining halls or airports, for instance, the term "food service" is so familiar it's become a single idea, "foodservice," even though most dictionaries prefer to see it as two words.

I remember some time back in the 1980s, at a time when US military involvement in Central America was giving some people pause, a newspaper commentary pointing out (no more than half in jest) that American involvement in Vietnam began to go out of control about the time that Viet Nam became "Vietnam."

The writer mused that if "El Salvador" came to be written "Elsalvador," we would know we were in trouble again. "Elsalvador" never happened, but the Iran-contra scandal did unfold just a couple of years later.

Fortunately, many of the countries on the American foreign policy radar screen are already pretty compact: Iraq, Iran (again!). But I've got to confess to just a tremor of concern about Northkorea. Or maybe Saudiarabia.

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