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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
  • I've seen ourang-outang before (in older works). – sibbaldiopsis Apr 17 '11 at 15:38
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    @nico You should probably add that as an answer... – Uticensis Apr 17 '11 at 18:42
  • I don't care what anybody says, I'm saying "orangatang", because fun. – Mitch Aug 13 at 13:40
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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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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.

  • Not to mention electronic mail becoming e-mail and then email. – Martha F. Apr 17 '11 at 22:55
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    But the OP asked about a change in the other direction, where they were used to seeing orangutan as a single word, no hyphen, until recently when it seems a hyphen was introduced. – nnnnnn Aug 13 at 7:28
  • @nnnnnn -- I think that may be sample error. The NGrams chart suggests that the single word is the later arrival. – Malvolio Aug 14 at 3:28
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The correct way when I was growing up in Singapore is that it's an orang utan (two words) because 'orang' means Man in Malay (one of our national languages) and 'utan' means Forest. So literally - Man of the Forest. The pronunciation is oh-rung u-tahn, not oh-rang-a-tan which remains really strange to hear. The hyphenation probably came about when someone wanted to correct it without wanting to separate the two words.

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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
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    @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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