Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

From Happy Meals to Root Canals

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2007

Back in 2005, I admitted that, “I used to ask the order-takers to leave the toys out of Doug and Adam’s Happy Meals, but my wife made me stop.” So I did, and I hope she’s happy now. Adam now has at least 3 bins in his room just for his Happy Meal toys, none of which he is willing to part with yet. The toy is such a central part of the Happy Meal to Adam that sometimes when we’ve gotten one at the drive-through, Adam will ask, “Can I have my Happy Meal now?”, and only after I’ve told him we’ll have to wait until we get to where we’re going will he realize my misunderstanding and say, “Can I have my Happy Meal toy?” Then once he has it, he might show it to Doug: “Doug, look at my Happy Meal!”

This phenomenon of a compound noun (Happy Meal toy) losing its head noun (toy) and having the remainder carry all the meaning is pretty common. I’ve written about it with buck(eyes), Grand Slam (tournaments), and State of the Union (addresses). I also think the same thing may have been going on with that reviewer I talked about in my last post, who took away the nudity and just used full frontal as the nonhead noun in a bigger compound word: full frontal scene. If the decapitation process happens again with this one, we can expect full frontal to eventually mean not only “full frontal nudity,” but also “full frontal nudity scene.” Heck, maybe it already is! Let’s check it out…


I got a tip from a friend that Daniel Craig did a full frontal in Love is the Devil. (link)

What reminded me of these decapitated compounds is a posting from Dr. Goodword about root canals. I’d always kind of wondered why this particular kind of dental procedure was called a root canal, and it turns out root canal is just another compound that’s lost its head. As he explains, “It is an operation on the root canal(s) of a tooth but is not a canal itself.” And while I’m in a linking mood, here’s a post about them from Bob Kennedy on piloklok.

In writing this post, I did a search for “headless compound”, and found that they are sometimes equated with exocentric compounds, which is accurate. I also found that exocentric compounds are equated with bahuvrihi compounds, which is not accurate. A bahuvrihi is one kind of headless (exocentric) compound, exemplified by butthead, which means (figuratively) “someone who has a head that is like a butt.” (Yes, butthead is headless. Isn’t that weird?) The earlier examples are all headless, but not bahuvrihis. If they were, a Happy Meal would be a kid with a Happy Meal; a State of the Union would be someone who has a union for his state, etc.

I’ve noticed, though, that the headless compounds in this post (which I’ve referred to as “decapitated”) all started out with a head, which was later eliminated, whereas butthead, AFAIK, never had one to begin with. I wonder if these two kinds of headless compounds tend to behave differently. Are there any decapitated compounds that qualify as bahuvrihis? I know of one: saber-tooth (tiger), an example that shows up a lot in writings on headless compounds. And ordinary (never-had-a-head) headless compounds that aren’t bahuvrihis? None come to mind right away, but I’m open for suggestions.

3 Responses to “From Happy Meals to Root Canals”

  1. […] by Neal on September 1, 2009 Time to order Adam’s Happy Meal. I leaned my head out the car window and spoke: I’d like a chicken nugget Happy Meal, with […]

  2. […] but apparently they are, and so much so that the full compound aviator sunglasses has become the headless compound aviators. My discovery of this was a bit startling, because it didn’t happen simply by me […]

  3. […] Including “full frontal” to mean a “full frontal nudity scene” (link) […]

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