Q: Is “monthslong” a new word or did the editors at NPR slip up? A recent story referred to “a monthslong campaign of racist bullying.”
A: Yes, “monthslong” is a word—a unit of written or spoken language—and it’s not all that new. But is it really a word, one that’s alive and well in writing and speech?
You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but dictionaries often leave out compounds made of words that have entries of their own.
For example, we’ve seen only three standard dictionaries with entries for “monthlong” or “month-long” as a singular compound adjective. Yet all standard dictionaries have entries for “month” and “long.”
Two online references, the collaborative Wiktionary and the program-generated Wordnik, do have entries for the plural form, “monthslong” (with “months-long” as a variant).
Wiktionary describes “monthslong” as an adjective that means “Lasting for multiple months.” As an example, it cites an April 14, 2007, article in the New York Times:
“A former United States Senator, John B. Breaux, ended his monthslong flirtation with the Louisiana governor’s race Friday evening, declaring that he would not be a candidate in the election this fall.”
Our own search of the Times archive found many examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long.” The earliest is from an English translation of Adolf Hitler’s June 22, 1941, proclamation on Germany’s war with the Soviet Union:
“German people! National Socialists! Weighted down with heavy cares, condemned to months-long silence, the hour has now come when at last I can speak frankly.”
We found many earlier examples for the hyphenated “months-long” in searches of book and newspaper databases.
Here’s an example from Hearts and Creeds, a 1906 novel by Anna Chapin Ray:
“The months-long discontent with the existing order of things, increased by the passive revolt of the Conservative party and aided by their active influence, was ending, as they had hoped, in the temporary disruption of the Liberal power.”
And an article in the Feb. 19, 1911, issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram refers to “a timber cruiser, or field surveyor, for a big lumber company, who was perpetually taking months-long trips through the most inaccessible regions.”
Many early examples for “months-long,” including all three mentioned above, break at the end of a line of type, so it’s unclear whether the writer intended the adjective to be hyphenated or not.
The Associated Press and New York Times style books have entries for “monthlong,” but not “monthslong.” However, “monthslong” and “months-long” appear frequently in the online versions of the Times and other newspapers.
In fact, the Times archive has hundreds of examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long,” though the hyphen-free version seems to be more popular lately.
Interestingly, the word usually appears without a hyphen in online searches of the Times archive, even when it originally appeared with a hyphen in the print paper.
In short, it seems that “monthslong” and “months-long” are indeed words in both the technical and practical senses, but their orthography is still a work in progress.
For what it’s worth, we prefer “months-long.” It’s easier to read than “monthslong,” especially online, where everyone’s in such a hurry.
Better still, if you know the number of months, why not be precise and say “a three-month campaign”?