Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Pierced Earrings

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2007

“These are nice,” my wife said, clicking on the thumbnail image. Up came the larger image of a pair of earrings. My wife had come over when she saw that I was online, had had me navigate to the webpages for a couple of online stores, and was now pointing out stuff like this. She does that every now and then at this time of year, though you’d think after more than a decade of marriage, she’d know that I’m not going to wear earrings or necklaces. This pair of earrings was interesting, though. The caption called them pierced earrings.

“Oh, I know what’s next,” you’re saying. “He probably thought the earrings were supposed to be pierced, instead of making the obvious connection that they were for pierced ears, as opposed to being clip-on earrings.” Well, you’re wrong. I knew immediately what pierced earrings meant. Or at least, I did as soon as I saw that the earrings didn’t have any holes in them.

Well, almost as soon as that.

Seriously, pretty soon after.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. What I wondered was how I was supposed to have made the jump from the compositional meaning of earrings that were pierced to the intended meaning of earrings for pierced ears. Was it just one of those things that you just have to accept even though they don’t make sense, like I could care less?

But then suddenly, like a Necker cube flipping inside out, the phrase shifted to match its meaning. It wasn’t a matter of literal vs. nonliteral meanings at all; pierced earring was ambiguous between two literal meanings. Before, I had been parsing it like this:


Now, I was parsing it like this:


Still, it’s not like the first parsing is incorrect. Phonetically, ear and ring really do belong together more than pierced and ear do, because earring is unquestionably a compound word, as I’ve noted on the first tree diagram. First of all, what else would it be, with two nouns put next to each other and acting as a unit? Second, you can’t put adjectives between its two parts, to produce phrases such as *ear golden ring or *ear expensive ring. Third, it’s pronounced “EAR-ring” and not “ear-RING,” a clear sign that it’s achieved single-word status. (Not to mention the fact that it’s typically written without space or hyphen between ear and ring.)

Pierced ear, on the other hand, is still just a phrase consisting of an adjective and the noun it modifies, which is why it’s labeled as plain old N(oun) on the second tree diagram. How do we know pierced ear is not a compound? Though not common, it’s possible to put adjectives between pierced and ear; for example, pierced, sunburned ear or pierced little ear. (It’s also not pronounced “PIERCED ear”, but this evidence isn’t convincing by itself: Some compounds, such as apple pie, don’t have stress on their first element either.)

Another reason to favor the first parsing: Forming a compound noun out of other compound nouns is fine (consider for example, [[tweetle beetle] [[bottle puddle] [paddle battle]]]), but forming one out of a noun (ring) and a phrase (pierced ear) is a little strange, smearing the line between word formation processes and phrase construction (aka syntax) even more than compounding does already. It’s not unheard of, but it’s a bit out of the ordinary.

So the semantics points to the [[pierced ear] ring] parse, while phonological considerations point to the [pierced [ear ring]] parse. This kind of situation is known as a bracketing paradox. This particular bracketing paradox, however, may be on its way to a resolution. It turns out that you can shop not only for pierced earrings, but for pierced jewelry in general. There’s no body part for the pierced in pierced jewelry to be modifying; in this phrase, there’s no getting around the fact that pierced modifies jewelry. As for how one interprets pierced to be predicated not of the jewelry but of the body part it gets stuck through… it looks like that’s a matter of literal vs. nonliteral meaning, after all. And if it works there, it can work the same way for pierced earrings.

All this discussion of earrings has given me an idea: I think I might get my wife some earrings (pierced earrings) for Christmas this year. Won’t she be surprised! Unless she reads my blog, that is.

Yeah, she’ll be totally surprised.

6 Responses to “Pierced Earrings”

  1. Frogman said

    The word “hypallage” comes to my mind.

  2. bearing said

    I’m surprised the general noun isn’t “piercing jewelry.” Much more pleasing, don’t you think?

    Then we could have a “piercing earring” (a little odd sounding) or an “ear-piercing ring” (which distinguishes it from a nose-piercing ring or a navel-piercing ring or an ear-piercing stud).

  3. Rachel Klippenstein said

    An “ear-piercing ring” sounds like something else too. Though that is unlikely to be noticed with other body parts.

  4. Matthew said

    Another way of looking at it puts “pierced” in the position of a different sort of adjective, not describing what the noun is, but what the noun is for. I’ve heard syntax like that from some foreign speakers of English.

  5. Russell said

    Hmm, I’m going to have to think about this for a while.

    There’s all sorts of semantic relations you get between nouns and modifiers – and not just noun-noun compounds, which are notorious for vague and contextually-dependent interpretations (“pumpkin bus,” anyone?). It’s been pointed out to me that even in simple cases like “red ball,” you can get a meaning like ‘the ball belonging to the red team’. This one is interesting because there’s sort of an intermediate step…kinda.

    It reminds me of the (strange? at least infrequent) use of the suffix -er in words like runners (shoes/clothing for running), cross-trainers, jumpers, and…oh, there must be some others. Not sure why it reminds me – just, I suppose, the sort of “distant” modification you get with “pierced jewelry.”

  6. […] kind of weird question was that? Then, to use a phrase I’ve used before, like a Necker cube flipping inside out, the phrase shifted to match its meaning. I’d been […]

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