4

I was reading an article in The New York Times published in 1990 and came across the spelling of teenager as 'teen-ager'; is this American spelling? Archaic?

The young man, who often said he only wanted to be treated like an ordinary teen-ager, had a date for the senior prom, and friends said he was looking forward to the dance.

According to Merriam-Webster the noun ager first appeared in print in 1884 while teen, meaning “a teenage person,” dates back to 1818.

Is the use of the hyphen in “teen-ager” still common today? (If not, when did it stop being common?) What is the history of this spelling?

3 Answers 3

3

When did 'teenager' become a more common spelling than 'teen-ager'?

As I note in a comment beneath Barrie England's answer, that answer's reliance on a Google Ngram graph of teenager versus teen-ager is fatally flawed.

One alternative to using Ngram is to compare the decade-by-decade numbers of occurrences for each spelling in the newspapers included in the Elephind newspaper database. This method has its own problems—ranging from frequent false positive matches due to OCR errors, to limited access to newspapers after about 1925, to problems the search engine has in dealing with instances where "teen-" appears at the end of one line and "ager" at the beginning of the next. Still, the overall shift in Elephind's decade-by-decade reported totals for teenager versus teen-ager suggests some degree of change in real-world spelling preferences. Here the totals are for U.S. newspapers in the Elephind database system:

1930s: teen-ager 5, teenager 5

1940s: teen-ager 973, teenager 241

1950s: teen-ager 2,695, teenager 3,792

1960s: teen-ager 4,302, teenager 7,020

1970s: teen-ager 2,605, teenager 8,240

1980s: teen-ager 4,010, teenager 10,027

1990s: teen-ager 1,473, teenager 3,639

2000s: teen-ager 298, teenager 3,269

In the 1940s matches for teen-ager outnumbered matches for teenager by approximately four to one, but in the 1950s teenager became more common by a significant margin. These results hardly prove that teenager passed teen-ager in popularity in the 1950s, but they do indicate a major shift in proportionate use of teenager and teen-ager in the 1950s compared with the 1940s.


When did reference works start favoring 'teenager' over 'teen-ager'?

Merriam Webster first includes an entry for the term teen-ager in the seventh edition (1963) of its Collegiate Dictionary series, but related entries for teens go back to the First edition (1898), which has this:

Teens, n. pl. The years of one's age having the termination -teen, — thirteen to nineteen.

The third edition (1916) of the Collegiate Dictionary is very similar:

teens, n. pl. The year's of ones age of which the numbers (from thirteen to nineteen inclusive) have the termination -teen.

The fifth edition (1936) broadens the definition a bit and adds an example:

teens, n. pl. The years of one's age, or any numbers, having the termination -teen; as, a girl in her teens.

The sixth edition (1949) complements the entry for the noun teens with an entry for the adjective teen—and mentions at the end of the new entry the ancillary terms teen-age and teen-ager:

teen, adj. Within the teens; between thirteen an nineteen; as, boys of teen age. — teen-age, adj. — teen-ager, n.

teens, n. pl. The years of one's age, or any numbers, having the termination -teen; as , a girl in her teens.

The seventh edition (1963) marks a breakthrough for teen-ager, giving it its own entry and surrounding it with entries for four related terms:

teen adj : TEEN-AGE

teen-age or teen-aged adj : of, being, or related to people in their teens

teen-ager n : a person in his teens

teener n : TEEN-AGER

teens n pl {-teen (as in thirteen)} 1 : the numbers 13 to 19 inclusive; specif[ically] : the years 13 to 19 in a lifetime or century 2 : TEEN-AGERS

The seventh edition does not include teenager as a variant spelling for teen-ager. But the eighth edition (1973) reverses field completely and includes only the spelling teenager:

teenage or teenaged adj : of, being, or related to people in their teens

teenager n : a person in his teens

The ninth edition (1983) adds an entry for teen as a noun in the sense of "teenager," and provides first occurrence dates for it and for the various terms introduced in the seventh edition: teen (noun) 1820, teen (adjective) 1926, teenage or teenaged (1925), teenager (1939), teener (1894), and teens (1604).

The tenth edition (1993) pushes the first occurrence date for teen in the sense of "teenager" back to 1818 and the first occurrence date for teenage or teenaged to 1921, but it holds the first occurrence dates for teener and teens steady at 1894 and 1604, respectively. Regrettably, it also removes the separate entries for teen as an adjective (subsumed under the entry for teen as a noun) and of teenager (subsumed under the entry for teenage or teenaged), so there are no first-occurrence updates for those two words.

Thus Merriam-Webster's editors went from asserting in 1963 that teen-ager was the only spelling of the term in widespread use to asserting in 1973 that teenager was the only spelling of the term in widespread use. Both assertions fly in the face of numerous instances of both spellings in 1963 and 1973.

The Associated Press Stylebook was far slower than Merriam-Webster to embrace teenager. Here is the relevant entry from The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (1980 edition):

teen, teen-ager (n.) teen-age (adj.) Do not use teen-aged.

The 1996 edition of the AP Stylebook repeats the 1980 edition's entry verbatim; and the 2000 edition adds to it a note that "The hyphen is an exception to Webster's" (meaning Merriam-Webster's spelling preferences).

Finally, the 2007 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook reverses course:

teen, teen-ager (n.) teen-age (adj.) No hyphen is a change in AP style. Do not use teen-aged.

So it appears that U.S. newspapers that followed AP style closely were still using teen-ager rather than teenager well into the twenty-first century.


What is the etymology of 'teen-ager'/'teenager'?

Although its style generally comports with AP, the New York Times has published its own house style guide as a commercial offering since 1962. Here is the entry from The New York Times Style Book for Writers and Editors (1962):

teen-age, teen-ager. Do not use teen by itself.

In 1962, the style preference for teen-age and teen-ager was consistent with the then-current edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (the sixth edition).

From The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (1976) [combined snippets]:

teen-age, teen-ager. Before a noun, use teen-age, not teen-aged except in quoted matter: teen-age daughter. Do not use teen by itself; teens may be used in reference to a span of ages (sons in their teens) but not to the young people concerned, even in headlines. In cap-and-lower-case heads: Teen-Age, Teen-Ager.

At this point the New York Times (and AP) preference conflicted with the prevailing Collegiate Dictionary preference (the eighth edition); but the newspaper guideline's chief concern seems to have been to avoid teen-aged as an adjective and teen as a short form of teen-ager.

From The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, revised and expanded edition (1999):

teenage, teenager. Without a hyphen, Before a noun, use teenage (not teenaged, except in a quotation): teenage daughter. And do not use teen as a separate word, even in headlines, unless the reference is to a span of dates or ages (inventions during the teens and 20's; sons in their teens; but not teen smoking).

At some point between 1976 and 1999, the New York Times discarded its preference for teen-ager in favor of teenager. It isn't clear when this happened, but the reference in the posted question to teen-ager in a 1990 Times article strongly suggests that the 1976 guideline was still in place at that time.


Where and in what context did 'teenager' originate?

As several of the Merriam-Webster entries cited above indicate, the teen part of teenager derives from the range of numbers thirteen to nineteen. Michael Quinion, Ologies and Isms: A Dictionary of Word Beginnings and Endings (2002) has this entry for -teen:

-teen ... Forming the names of numerals from 13 to 19 {Old English inflected form of ten.}

Examples are fourteen and nineteen. A pre-teen is a young person below the age of thirteen. ... Words such as velveteen and sateen derive instead from French words ending in -ine.

The 29 earliest published matches that I found for teenager (in one form or another) in Google Books and Elephind newspaper database searches are from the period 1915 to 1924. When sorted by spelling, they yield the following distribution:

teen ager[s] 11 occurrences (first one in 1915)

teen-ager[s] 12 occurrences (first one in 1917)

teenager[s] 2 occurrences (first one in 1919)

'teen-ager[s] 2 occurrences (first one in 1920)

'teen ager[s] 2 occurrences (first one in 1921)

The individual matches from 1915 to 1921 are as follows.

From "The Epworth League," in Official Record of the Forty-Fourth Session of the Northwest Iowa Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1915):

We find an increased number of Bible and Mission study classes under the direction of the Epworth League. ... It may be that we can use the Epworth League as a bridge over which our boys and girls can be carried as "teen agers" from the Sunday school into full membership in the church.

From "Evolution of the National Engineer," in the [Chicago, Illinois] National Engineer (December 1915):

We believe that it will be a good thing for all of us, the veterans, the army of active members, associate members, and the "teen agers" who are coming into the association [the National Association of Stationary Engineers] some day, and who read the paper at present, to consider a brief chronology of this our own paper, the National Engineer, that has in reality become a part of us.

From "Tremont," in the [Bloomington, Illinois] Weekly Pantagraph (March 31, 1916):

—The Teen "Agers" will have charge of the evening services at the Baptist church next Sunday. The following is the program:

...

—Piano solo, Mary Robison; ... paper, “What a Teen Ager Can Do in the Home," Ruth Helleman; song, Willing Workers; benediction.

From "Tremont," in the [Bloomington, Illinois] Weekly Pantagraph (April 7, 1916):

—Miss Ruth Hellemann was elected vice-president of the "Teen Agers” at the Mackinaw convention Saturday. ... The organization is planning a summer camp of two weeks or more.

From J.H. Barton, "Idaho Letter," in the [Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri] Herald and Presbyter (April 25, 1917):

Twin Falls Presbytery met in the Pleasant View Church, April 10th. ... The following topics were discussed: ... "Special Work for Teen-agers Outside the Sabbath School," by Rev. M. M. Van Patten; "Attendance of the Children on Church Services," by Rev. E. F. Gray.

From Katherine Grimes, "Making a Living Issue of a Boys' Department," in the [Springfield, Massachusetts] Writer's Monthly (October 1918):

"As the twig is bent the tree's inclined," say the publishers of farm papers, and they prove their faith in the old saw by going out after the boys. For boys are farmers, if they live on a farm "from their youth up," and these same sage publishers know that to get and hold the teen-ager is to have gained and held the man of the twenties and beyond.

From an advertisement for Centenary Mission Study books, in the [Nashville, Tennessee] Christian Advocate (March 7, 1919):

"Adventures in Faith in Foreign Lands" is quite up to the standard of Dr. [Edward] Pell's former efforts. ... Its deeds of daring and spirit of adventure will delight the young people, while the teenagers and children will rejoice in the fine spiritual call and the appeal to the hero-worshiping instinct.

From "Young People's Work," in the [Chicago, Illinois] Baptist (March 6, 1920):

"Now we exhort you, brethren, ... be patient toward all men." ... Some older members of the church might well ponder this text. They would not then lose all patience with the teen-ager who is trying to be a saint and at the same time hold his own as a pure unadulterated human being.

From "Conference Board of Sunday Schools," in Fifty-second Session of the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (March 17–22, 1920):

We would mention especially the impression that was made upon the Conference by the presence of the 500 Teen Agers from the city of Harrisburg and vicinity. ...

...

We have [Sunday] schools where 100% of the Juniors and Teen Agers are members of the Church. This opportunity to win folks, young and old, to Christ should be utilized.

From Edwin Morris, Charleston, South Carolina (1920[?]):

In the Buist Kerrison house is the interesting detail of the handrail coming down, ending in an actual carved hand which grasps the top of the newel. I suggested that perhaps this was so teen-age girls coming beautifully and gracefully down the stair would begin to learn the art of companionably holding hands. This thought was gently scoffed at, and I seemed to sense the idea that the beautiful teen-ager would already know that, without practice or rehearsal — an assumption that may be well-founded.

From Mary Cady, "The Social Road to Thrift," in the [New York City] [Young Women's Christian] Association Monthly (December 1920):

Is it possible to rob thrift of its terrors for the average mortal who is inclined to believe all too literally that "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof"? Certainly it cannot be done by talking to 'teen-agers of the wisdom of saving for their declining years; they have no intention of growing old in that unpleasant fashion.

From "Sunday School—Epworth League," in the [New York City] Christian Advocate (January 13, 1921):

The attendance [during Win-My-Chum week] was never equaled. Instead of having a few middle-aged folk responsible for these meetings here we see teen-agers and young people under twenty-five years enlisted and enthusiastic. ...

The teen-age department sessions of the Sunday school are becoming more effective. ... The pastor says: "My teen-agers of the Sunday school have become the very backbone of the Epworth League. In fact, the two are inseparable."

From "A Bulletin That Coordinates," in The [New York City and Chicago, Illinois] Continent (April 28, 1921):

Th adult classes find that the primary department has adopted an Armenian orphan or that 'teen agers are hearing inspirational addresses by visitors to the school.

From "Methodist Boys' Conference of Central Pennsylvania Conference," in The [New York] Christian Advocate (May 12, 1921):

  1. Every Teen Ager a high school graduate, ultimately, and where at all possible a college education.

From "Washington Area" in the [Chicago, Illinois] Epworth Herald (May 21, 1921):

In support of such an attitude one of the papers on the program had this topic, "We Sent a Whole Bunch of Teen Agers to Eagles Mere Epworth League Institute."

From "The Workers' Conference and Local Needs," in the [Cincinnati, Ohio] Sunday School Journal (July 31, 1921):

So, with other Sunday-school needs and problems. ... Is “Work With Boys” the topic? Then bring all your thinking to bear on how all the forces and agencies of school and church may hold that gang of teen-agers who, you feel, are gradually but surely slipping away.

From "Young People's Work," in the [Chicago, Illinois] Baptist (September 24, 1921):

  1. Go after young blood. ... In every church there are the teen-agers. They need training in expressional activities.

From "Sunday School Notes," in the [Des Moines, Iowa] Bystander (September 29, 1921):

Vacation season is over and practically every officer and teacher was in their appointed place. A large number of vigorous teen agers were present and kept things humming from start to finish.

From "Invitation - Announcement," in the Pullman [Washington] Herald (January 13, 1922):

The entertainment and service will consist of stereopticon views of the work of W. W. G.s the world over, and an evangelical address by Prof. M. K. Snyder. This invitation is extended to teen-agers of all the Sunday schools within reach of the town as the initial program of the present teen-age superintendent of the Whitman County S. S. Association.

From Frank Smith, Leaders of Young People (Cincinnati, Ohio: The Methodist Book Concern, 1922):

To date not much has been done in this field by Sunday-school workers. We [Methodists] have greatly concerned about the younger adolescents (the young "teen-agers") and about the adults.

From Thomas Graham, "The Graduate School of Theology," in the Oberlin [Ohio] Alumni Magazine (December 1922):

But "Jesus' Ideals of Living" [by G. Walter Fiske] is original in that it translates into the thought and language of the later "teens" what others have written for the more mature.

...

I am going to give my "supposing" friends a chance at this book. Your "teen ager" will like it, too.

From "What the Lesson Teaches," in the [Cincinnati, Ohio] Sunday School Journal (January 1923):

Sometimes we "teen agers" find some of our number—ourselves all too often—ready to tussle hard for the lion's share of the picnic dinner, to scheme for the leadership of the team before the bunch has asked us, or to try secretly to undermine the chances of our rivals for the highest honors.

From "Fifty 'Different' Meetings for the Intermediates," in the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Luther League Review (February 25, 1923):

The "'teen agers" are always looking for something different, ther e must be constant variety in their meetings, and they enjoy special features and novelty in conducting the meeting.

From "The 'Luther League Review' and Its Uses" in the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Luther League Review (April 1923):

The Review helps to hold the boys and girls through the years when they are sometimes feeling a little too old, and sometimes a little too young, the very age when thy are hardest to hold, and need to be held most steadily, through its Intermediate Topics. The leader of these "teenagers" will find helps and hints for the work in the Intermediate Department.

From "The Social Meeting" in the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Luther League Review (May 1923):

An Immigrant Party for the 'Teen Agers.

From "When Parents Leave Off," in the [Cincinnati, Ohio] Sunday School Journal (November 1923):

But as the children grow into their teens, how different is the situation! ... It is not the fault of the writers that the teen-ager is more complex than the kindergarten child; but at present the specialists in that age are trained to work through clubs and groups rather than through the family.

From "The Reading Course and Other Suggested Books," in the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Luther League Review (February 1924):

Fifty Missionary Stories—Braine. A series of short anecdotes of the missionary enterprise, with enough thrills to satisfy the most exacting 'teen-ager.

From "Why Be a Missionary?" in the [Cincinnati, Ohio] Woman's Home Missions (September 1924):

And then—they [children] need so many things, just setting forth in life. Surely they need all that I can teach them of the Way and the Pilot thereof! They need sympathy. Who knoweth the heart of a child? Who can read the thoughts of a "teen-ager"?


Age confusion regarding 'teenager'

Whether everyone using the term in the early days understood the age range of teen ager to be thirteen to nineteen is not clear. Consider this advertisement from the Harris Company in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (September 6, 1938):

Teen Ager Frocks $2.00

Such variety! Any teen ager will find the "perfect" style to express individuality! Jumpers . . .dirndls . . . suspender types . . . peasant models! Perfectly sized for 10 to 16 year olds! They'll sell on sight!

The Harris Company seems not to have been committed to any particular age range or spelling of the term. An earlier Harris Company advertisement in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (December 19, 1936) spells teenager closed up:

Teenagers Will Thank You for Party Dresses $3.49

Fluffy ruffled dresses for gay Christmas parties. We have a bevy of new styles for the miss whose age is 7 to 14 years.

And a slightly later Harris Company advertisement in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (October 1, 1938) hyphenates it:

Plaid Flannel Suspender Skirts $3.98

Stitched down pleats all around . . . a wide belt . . . a slick zipper closing . . . and detachable suspenders . . . make this a dress that every teen-ager will be wild about. The gay plaids come in enough color combinations to please most anyone. Sizes 10 to 16 years.

Teen-Age Dresses $2.98

A two-in-one outfit! The cotton covert cloth skirt in plain colors has a detachable suspender top. . . . The new Jitterbug blouse is gaily striped so the costume can be divided. Sizes 10 to 16 years.


Conclusions

The four earliest occurrences of the noun teen ager[s] that I found were from 1915 (two) and 1916 (also two)—the earliest from Iowa and the next three from Illinois. All spelled the term as two separate words: teen ager[s]. However, the next occurrence (from Ohio/Missouri in 1917) used the hyphenated form, teen-agers, and for the entire period, teen-ager[s] (12) and teen agers (11) appeared in almost exactly the same number of articles. The spelling teenagers also appeared during this early period, although only twice.

All 29 occurrences during this early period were from the United States, with a concentration in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. In order of frequency the states represented are as follows: Illinois (7), Ohio (7), New York (5), Pennsylvania (5), Iowa (2), Massachusetts (1), Missouri (1) South Carolina (1), Tennessee (1), and Washington [state] (1); the numbers total to 32 because two publications listed dual places of publication. Of the 30 instances, the only dubious dating involves the South Carolina instance, which may be much later than 1920 (the date ascribed to it).

Perhaps the most striking thing about these early instances is that 26 of the 29 I found were in religious publications or involved specifically religion-themed instruction. The exceptions are a 1915 instance from Illinois involving an engineering association, a 1918 instance from Massachusetts involving farming publications, and the iffy 1920 instance from South Carolina involving teen-age girls descending the stairs in an elegant house. All of the religious denominations represented in the articles are Protestant: Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian.

The religious connection to teenager began to dissipate during the later 1920s and, by the 1930s seems to have vanished altogether. Nevertheless, I think that the term teen ager arose initially as a special designation in religious publications for young people from thirteen to nineteen years old who participated in church activities, especially Sunday school.

9
  • "...holds the first occurrence dates for teener and teens steady at 1894 and 1604, respectively." It's likely to be 1904 but I thought best to check with you.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 13, 2021 at 8:52
  • Amazing and scrupulous research as ever but I disgree with its conclusions. The term "teen(-)ager" and its spelling variants cannot have been popularised by religious publications or articles at the turn of the century. In fact scare quotes are used by The Graduate School of Theology I am going to give my "supposing" friends a chance at this book. Your "teen ager" will like it, too. this suggests that the author was familiar with the term but was probably aware if its novelty among more senior readers.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 13, 2021 at 9:16
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: The first occurrence date that Merriam-Webster gives for teens really is 1604. Its source for this date appears to be the following passage from John Marston, The Malcontent (1604): "Maquarelle. A pretty boy, faith how old art thou? Page. I thinke foureteene. Maquarelle. Nay, and yee be in the teens, are yee a gentleman borne, do you know me, my name is Medam Maquerelle, I lye in the old Cunny Court." As you might imagine, Madame Maquarelle is identified in the dramatis personae as "an olde Pandresse."
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 13, 2021 at 23:55
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: Maquerelle's response to the page makes more sense if you understand "and" to be functioning as "an" in its archaic sense of "if." A recent edition of the play renders her line as follows: "Nay, an ye be in the teens—are ye a gentleman born? Do you know me? My name is Medam Maquerelle; I lie in the old Cunny Court." That is, "No, if you are in your teens..."
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 14, 2021 at 8:20
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: I wish I had had space to include some of the instances of teen[-]ager from the later 1920s and 1930s—but I actually had to cut a bunch of stuff to get the answer to fit within the max character count, and I wanted to include all of the early examples so that people could draw their own conclusions about the likely origins of the term from as complete a representation of the early instances as I could provide. I will say that the examples from later years moved quickly to thoroughly nonreligious settings, like those in the 1930s advertisements mentioned near the end of my answer.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 14, 2021 at 8:39
2

The hyphenated form may be more popular in the US than in the UK. The British National Corpus has 2 records for teen-ager and 822 for teenager, whereas the figures in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are 1069 and 5824. Nevertheless, this nGram shows that overall the latter started to outdistance the former dramatically from about 1970.

3
  • 5
    The unhyphenated version is by far more common in written US English today, as well. I think the New York Times example is indicative of a copyediting quirk more than anything.
    – user13141
    Dec 1, 2013 at 15:51
  • The Ngram graph that you link to in your answer shows the results not for teenager vs. teen-ager but for teenager vs. teen - ager. I'm not sure what the later term represents exactly ("'teen' minus 'ager'" maybe?), but it most certainly doesn't represent the numbers of published instances of teen-ager as a closed-up, hyphenated word in the database. That's why there is no row of searchable examples of teen - ager beneath the Ngram graph, as there is for teenager. In short, the supposed Ngram evidence for the relative frequency of teenager vs. teen-ager is no evidence at all.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 12, 2021 at 0:31
  • @SvenYargs my understanding might be flawed, it is not a topic which particularly fascinates me, but I believe the extra space before and after the hyphen is added necessarily by Ngram in order to find matches. Whenever I have searched hyphenated expressions I've seen Google almost apologise for their interference. Still, the results showing compound words with the hyphen are at best interesting. Never 100% reliable.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 13, 2021 at 8:33
-1

Yes teenager is not hyphenated anymore. I had read it in many books, newspapers, and magazines that 99% has no hyphen and only 1% with hyphen.

3
  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Oct 11, 2021 at 20:57
  • This hasn't changed in the past 30 years. "Teen-ager" was weird in 1990. Heck, it was weird in 1960.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 11, 2021 at 21:08
  • 1
    Actually, teen-ager seems to have been the preferred spelling at the New York Times until as late as 1999 and the preferred spelling under Associated Press guidelines until as late as 2007.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 13, 2021 at 7:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.