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For most of my life 'till about a couple of years ago, I had only seen the spelling orangutan written to describe those delightful red-headed apes from the tropical forests of Borneo. Lately, though, I've increasingly been seeing a strange spelling in certain scientific publications I read: orang-utan, with a hyphen. Is there a particular reason why this hyphen was added? It's strange, because usually in English, words evolve to have their hyphens and diacriticals omitted, not added.

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According to Wikipedia, that's the Malay spelling: The word "orangutan" comes from the Malay words "orang" (man) and "(h)utan" (forest) – nico Apr 17 '11 at 11:19
@nico You should probably add that as an answer... – Uticensis Apr 17 '11 at 18:42
up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to the Wikipedia page about orangutan, that's the Malay spelling (although it looks like it is actually two words):

The word "orangutan" comes from the Malay words "orang" (man) and "(h)utan" (forest).

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I've seen ourang-outang before (in older works).

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SPOILER ALERT Poe spelled it "Ourang-outang" in Murders in the Rue Morgue, but he was under the impression that the simian was capable of attacking an enemy with a knife, so what did he know? – Malvolio Apr 17 '11 at 16:47
That's the French spelling. May be Edgar Allan Poe used the French spelling because the whole story takes place in Paris with French characters. Just adding another exotic touch. – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 18 '11 at 6:38

Perhaps this phenomenon should have a name, maybe "hyphen decay". A noun phrase becomes so current that starts being treated as a single word and is granted a hyphen in recognition of its new status. If the word becomes popular enough, even the hyphen is dropped and the words fuse.

"Bell boy" becomes "bell-boy", then "bellboy". Ditto for hundreds of other words from "type writer" to "lap top".

Orangutan is unusual in that the words originated in a non-Western language (albeit one that used Latin characters) and the hyphen was apparently added in the process of importing the word into English.

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Not to mention electronic mail becoming e-mail and then email. – Martha F. Apr 17 '11 at 22:55

Perhaps to prevent reading it as o-ran-gu-tan instead of o-rang-u-tan.

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In practice they're be the same because [ n ] becomes [ ŋ ] before [ g ]. – Jon Purdy May 4 '11 at 21:17
@JonPurdy, that's exactly Danny's point, that the hyphen is there to prevent the [g] from being pronounced, i.e. to make sure it's pronounced [ɔˈræŋʊˌtæn], not [ɔˈræŋgʊˌtæn]. – dainichi Aug 9 '12 at 14:44

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