If "ecosystem" (no hyphen) is defined as "a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms within their environment," should "eco-system" (hyphenated) be used to describe a system formed by the interaction of a community of non-biological (say, electronic) elements within their environment? or does it matter?

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    Why would you think the hyphen changes the meaning in that way? – user13141 Jan 11 '12 at 22:05
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    When an interesting doubt comes up, it helps to share the how why of it. OP should explain how the idea of hyphenating to redefine came up. As for the question itself, it's ecosystem in biology/ecology as well as in all other fields. – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 7:07

Merriam-Webster defines ecosystem as:

ecosystem, noun : an ecological community considered together with the nonliving factors of its environment as a unit

However, ecosystem has been co-opted in the press in the past few years to describe, for example, the interrelationship between Apple's AppStore and its iDevices.

Consider this article from Businessweek regarding Apple's larger ecosystem, or the matter-of-fact use of ecosystem in this article comparing the Android Market to the "more mature iTunes ecosystem."

So, to answer the first part of your question, ecosystem has come to be used in the sense of the interaction of things (iPods, iPhones, iUsers) within their environment (iTunes, the AppStore), biological or not.

To answer the second part of your question, ecosystem is not hyphenated, and hyphenating it would not create a new word with a different meaning.

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    +1 for "and hyphenating it would not create a new word with a different meaning." – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 7:02

It would just be a system. The "eco" in "ecosystem" comes from ecology, which is a branch of biology, so it would not be appropriate to use it to describe non-biological systems (unless you are describing a system of artificially intelligent machines, and highlighting how life-like they are and how closely they resemble real, living beings).

From the freeonlinedictionary:


  1. A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.
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  • Thanks, Jim. So you think that if I were to use it to describe AI machines I could use it sans hyphen? – dddppp Jan 11 '12 at 18:23
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    The word is generally written without a hyphen. – yoozer8 Jan 11 '12 at 18:31
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    -1: Usage, evolution, more! See Gnawme below for current journalese. Also, the answer is unsure about the hyphen. – Kris Jan 12 '12 at 7:04

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