Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Compound words’ Category

Black Little People

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2017

My brother Glen is a fan of Game of Thrones, and recently he came across a this blog post by Adrienne Marie Brown, where she proposes an all-black cast for GoT. However, when Glen reached the bottom of the list, he realized that one important character was missing: Tyrion Lannister. For non-Thronie readers, Tyrion Lannister is played by Peter Dinklage, who before GoT was best known to me from his scene-stealing role in Elf:

You’ll have noticed that Dinklage is a little person, which is why Glen found himself wondering (in his words), “What, you couldn’t think of any black little people… um, little black people… no, black little people actors?”

His question had run him straight into the old adjective-ordering issue. According to this table that I copied from my 2011 post on this topic…

evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

…we would expect little black person. But it’s not what we get. To find out whether little black person/people or black little person/people was more common, I had to leave the curated corpora and venture out into the larger internet, since neither phrase appeared in either corpus–with the exception of a single sentence in the NOW corpus that contained little black person twice:

I remember friends of mine saying, “yo soy negrito, pero un negrito fino,” which literally translates to “I am a little black person, but a fine little black person.”

(As it turns out, this use of the diminutive negrito in Spanish to refer to black people is a different rabbit hole to fall into, so those who are interested can start with this article.)

Doing an ordinary Google search, the only examples I found of little black person/people were translations of negrito. But searching for black little person/people, I quickly found examples such as:

  • Cara Reedy is an actor, writer, comedian, and blogger with achondroplastic dwarfism. … Reedy explains that as an individual with dwarfism, “I have to do everything everybody else does, but better. I have to be a better writer, I have to tell better jokes. I have to do everything better because everyone already believes I can’t do it. I’m a female, black, little person. It’s a lot.” (link)
  • Before she was on Little Women: LA, [Tonya] Banks was an actress. … Banks joined the entertainment industry in 1984 as an actress and stuntwoman. …
    Banks wants to be the first black little person woman to win an Academy Award. She overcame difficult odds to become the only black little person in Hollywood. (link)
  • Have seen Black little person of both sexes here in DC – one fellow who also appears to have additional handicaps, and a woman who seems otherwise unaffected by handicaps (I hesitate to use the word “normal” since I don’t want to imply anything negative about her physical appearance). (link)
  • I was also “friends” with a black little person when I worked in a pharmacy in Macon, GA. (link)
  • … notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi’s Rigoletto; and the black little person, only thirty-four inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. (link)
  • The black little person in the Nexium commercial (link)
  • The Midnight Thud, a “demonic” black little person dressed in S&M gear who smokes crack and knows martial arts, dwells in the bowels of the eponymous penitentiary, forced there by unknown circumstances (link)

So where did our nice adjective-ordering chart go astray?

First, notice that the final item is “attributive noun”–in other words, the first noun in a compound noun, such as table tennis. In other words, we could shorten the list by lopping off “attributive noun” and noting that compound nouns don’t get broken up.

Second, remember that ordinary adjectives can still become part of compound nouns. This happens in well-known pairs such as black bird (which could be a crow, a raven, a grackle, a black vulture, a flamingo dipped in tar, or any other bird that happens to be black), and blackbird (which has to be one of several specific species of birds). It seems that little person/people is a compound, whereas black person/people is not–or at least, not as much of one as little person/people is. So how do we know this, other than the fact that people actually use the term black little person, but by and large avoid little black person?

First of all, there’s the stress shift. Many (maybe even most) compounds in English are stressed on their first element. So for example, we have black bird, but blackbird; green house but greenhouse. (You can hear a lot more about this “backshift” in this episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast hosted by John McWhorter.) And in the case at hand, it’s little person/people. If you say little person, I’ll assume you’re just talking about some small person.

And speaking of small, notice that you pronounce small person with the stress on the noun: small person. If you said you’d seen a small person, I wouldn’t know what you meant, even though I know the meanings of small and person. This brings us to the second property of compound words: They have idiosyncratic meanings that you don’t arrive at by putting together the meanings of the individual words. A small person is just a small person, but a little person is someone with achondroplasia or some similar disorder.

This idiosyncratic meaning also reveals itself when you try replacing person/people with another word, even if it’s a word for another kind of human being. Little men, little women, and little children are not the same as little people. The reality show Little Women mentioned above, which centers on women who are little people, gets its cleverness by playing on this expectation. Note also the phrase black little person woman in that same example: Tonya Banks said this instead of the seemingly more concise black little woman. Furthermore, even if a little person is an actor, an engineer, or an asshole, calling them a little actor, little engineer, or little asshole doesn’t convey that meaning.

A third piece of evidence is the one-replacement test. Noun phrases like white cats and black ones are fine, indicating that white cats is a phrase instead of a compound. But if you try to do this with cat people and dog people, you get the ungrammatical *cat people and dog ones, which indicates that cat person and dog person are compounds. In our case, cat people and little ones won’t fly. It’s grammatical, but it doesn’t mean people who love cats and people with achondroplasia; it means people who love cats, and people who are children. Even big people and little ones doesn’t work: little is now just an antonym to big, with its ordinary meaning.

Here’s a quick comparison to see how black person/people fares with these tests:

  1. Stress shift: black person and black person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
  2. Idiosyncratic meaning: black person/people need not actually be the color black, so there is some idiosyncratic meaning here. Indication: Compound
  3. Suitability of other nouns: black men, black women, black children, black bakers, and black CEOs are all still black people. Indication: Phrasal
  4. One-replacement: black people and brown ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

So with all these facts favoring black little person over little black person, its seeming violation of the adjective-ordering rule isn’t such a mystery after all. But getting back to the task of casting a black Game of Thrones, Glen had a more practical question: “Linguistics aside, I wonder why that website didn’t go with Tony Cox, the black little person from Bad Santa?” Why not, indeed?

So to Adrienne Marie Browne, courtesy of my brother Glen, here is the latest proposed addition to your #blackGOTcast:


Posted in Adjective ordering, Christmas-related, Compound words, TV | 1 Comment »

Build Your Own Nacho

Posted by Neal on July 5, 2016

As I walked into the family-friendly, casual restaurant, this sign was on display:

“Build your own nacho”? As I wondered in a tweet a little later, what if you want more than one nacho? Do you have to go through the line again? Or are these really big nachos? Looking at the sign closer, I see that the restaurant gives you the chips, plural, so we can cautiously assume that you can acquire several nachos in one pass. Also, I see that the sign has been carefully punctuated. When I first saw it, I parsed it like in this diagram. Here, the entire phrase build your own nacho has been pressed into service as a compound adjective. It’s a bar, of the build-your-own-nacho variety, similar to build-your-own-baked-potato bars or build-your-own-sundae bars.


Now, though, when I look at the sign, I see the judicious use of hyphens suggests a structure more like this next diagram. Here, just the partial phrase make your own has been frozen into a compound adjective, which modifies the nominal phrase nacho bar. It’s a nacho bar, of the build-your-own variety.


So what would a nacho bar of the build-your-own variety be? Context would have to say. It could be a nacho bar that you build yourself, like a build-it-yourself kit car. But given the context, it’s a bar where you build something for yourself, and that something is nachos.

Even so, the structurally ambiguous phrase build your own nacho bar highlights a syntactic tug-of-war that usually hides in the background. You have two competing templates. First, there’s the compound adjective X-your-own-Y template, where X is a verb such as build, make, or choose, and Y is a noun such as sundae, salad, or adventure. Second, there’s the nominal phrase Y bar template, where Y is a noun specifying something that you can find at the bar in question (other than the default of liquor): salad, sundaes, sushi, cigars, oxygen, or in this case, nachos. So when you come across a phrase of the form “X your own Y bar,” where does the Y belong? With “X your own”, or with “bar”?

The X-your-own-Y template is phrasal, and doesn’t put any restrictions on whether Y is singular or plural. It just depends on the meaning you want: Build your own house if you’re only building one; make your own nachos because you typically don’t eat just one, unless they’re of poor quality. The Y bar template is either for a phrase or a compound word (depending on who’s doing the analysis), but either way, attributive nouns are usually singular, so you have gumball machines instead of gumballs machines; car manufacturer instead of cars manufacturer; nacho bar instead of nachos bar. So when make your own nachos and nacho bar collide in a single expression, which one prevails?

The corpora I have access to don’t have enough attestations of make your own nacho(s) bar to make a determination (zero, to be precise), but just doing a naive Google search, I get about 60 hits for each variant.

In any case, remember that nacho bars are not show bars!

Posted in Compound words, Food-related | 2 Comments »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

Headless Aviators

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2013

I didn’t even know “aviator sunglasses” were a recognized type of sunglasses, 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 hearing someone talking about wearing aviators. Instead, when I took Doug and Adam for their eye exams, I saw on the reception counter a cardboard display showing small, laughing children wearing colorful, plastic-framed, wide-lensed sunglasses. The altered Top Gun logo told me that these unbelievably stylish sunglasses were called Babiators.

All at once, not only did I have to infer the existence of aviators as a noun referring to a kind of eyewear instead of a group of airplane pilots; I also had to take it in as part of an offensively cute portmanteau word, in a display for a product that shouldn’t even exist.

However, it is an interesting portmanteau. Component A: baby. Component B: aviators. On the one hand, you could break this portmanteau down as just baby + aviator: the beginning of the first component, the end of the other, and that’s all. On the other hand, there are some portmanteaus like the ones I described in this piece for

Sometimes, though, an identical string of sounds at the end of one word and the beginning of the other allows for a blend in which neither word has to give up anything. In a portmanteau such as bromance, everything is kept intact. Like an electron shared between two covalently bonded atoms, the ro belongs to both bro and romance. The same thing happens in guesstimate and netiquette.

Is babiators one of those? Almost, but not quite: [ebi] and [evi]. The [b] and the [v] don’t match. Still, they’re both voiced consonants made with the lips. A similar kind of overlap happens with the voiceless counterparts [p] and [f] in the verb refudiate that Sarah Palin raised our awareness of. (For what it’s worth, there are two differences with refudiate. First, the component refute still loses its final [t] consonant instead of being completely preserved. Second, I believe it was an unintentional mashup, not a consciously blended coinage.) So, was babiators created by the same kind of blending that gives us guesstimate and netiquette, or by the simpler kind that gives us spork? Or by some kind of discontinuous overlap?

On the semantics side, this is a portmanteau that was only possible once aviator sunglasses had become the headless aviators. The phrase babiator sunglasses would have to mean sunglasses worn by babiators. And whatever those might be, it would be even sillier than the actual idea behind the trademarked Babiators.

Posted in Compound words, Portmanteau words | 2 Comments »

New Development for Backformed Kudo

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2013

Singular KudoA couple of years ago, in a post about the backformation of the Boy Scouting-related singular noun Webelo from Webelos, I mentioned the similar backformation of kudo from the Greek borrowing kudos. Here are a couple of examples from COCA (the source of all the other examples in this post, except as noted):

  • And there was a little kudo called the Award of Merit
  • One even resulted in the ultimate scientific kudo.

The OED has kudo from as far back as 1941, though I’m not so sure about that citation. But their 1950 citation is a clear example:

A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.

This backformation is the most obvious sign that someone thinks of kudos as a plural, but other clues can be detected even in the absence of the giveaway form kudo:

  1. Pronunciation of the s in kudos as [z], as if it were the plural marker
  2. Lengthening of the /o/ before this [z] — the same difference you hear in the pronunciation of gross [groʊs] and grows [groʊːz]
  3. Plural verb agreement when kudos is the subject of a clause:
    • Kudos go to San Diegobased Qualcomm Corporate Foundation.
    • Critical kudos acknowledge the success of her approach.
  4. Use of count-noun determiners with kudos:
    • Many kudos for the essay by guest host Sharon Paul
    • A few kudos to get you started

Three months ago, I saw another step in the development of backformed kudo: its use as the modifying part of a compound noun. Compound nouns usually, but not always, have a singular as their first element — the noun that modifies the head noun. For example, we have gumball machines, not gumballs machines. So even someone who might never have occasion to reveal a backformation by talking about “one rabie” might well talk about attaching rabie tags to their pets’ collars. Similarly, in the October 5, 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly, there was this sentence about TV’s Emmy awards:

The last time nipple covers, shrimp truckers, and demented garden gnomes were mentioned during an Emmy telecast was the year 19 hundred and … never. But that’s what made the 64th annual kudofest on Sept. 23 so engrossing–if a tad bewildering. (“Best and Worst of the Awards,” Lynette Rice, p. 21)

COCA provides two more such examples, also from EW, and also about award shows:

  • He predicts a shiny night for four-Buckle nominee Brad Paisley, forecasts Sugarland to win Video of the Year for ” All I Want to Do, ” and believes that this kudocast will appeal to those beyond the country-fried set. (2009)
  • If you loved seeing Jack Black … rock the children silly on the big screen, you might contract a case of the giggles watching him host this kiddie kudocast (say that 10 times fast). (2006)

However, I’ve discovered that kudo isn’t always a backformation. If you’re talking about mixed martial arts, it’s a portmanteau of karate and judo!

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Portmanteau words, TV | 6 Comments »

Backformation Collection

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2011

Longtime family friends Jim and Mary paid us a visit last week to deliver some cookies and a Christmas present for Doug and Adam. Mary does a lot of crafts, particularly those involving sewing. Doug and Adam still use the hand-sewn trick-or-treat bags that she gave them almost ten years ago, and we still use the white felt Christmas tree apron she gave us at around the same time. It’s nice, with felt holly leaves and berries decorating the outer circumference, snap buttons to close the apron after you put it around the base of the tree, and a drawstring sewn into the inner circumference to allow adjustment for different trunk thicknesses. The white felt is somewhat dimmed by an accumulation of cat hairs that are effectively impossible to remove, and we have to make do with just the buttons, because cats exploring under the tree have chewed off both ends of the drawstring over last several Christmases. But we put it under the tree every year because it’s just that well made, not just because we know Mary will be coming by sometime while the tree’s still up.

Jim and Mary gave Doug and Adam each a decorative, hand-sewn bag this year, with a miniature version of the kind of drawstring that the Christmas tree apron used to have. Doug and Adam opened their bags to find a smaller drawstring bag inside. A still smaller drawstring bag was inside that one, and inside that, a gift card to a book store. Doug and Adam said thank you, and Doug went on to express appreciation for the bags, too. They would be useful, he said, because

I coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect.

There’s no way his rock collection would fit into any of those bags, or even all three together, but the thought was nice. And the coins or bottlecaps might just fit. We just need to make sure the cats don’t chew those little drawstrings off and us end up having to take them to the animal clinic. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that what caught my ear was Doug’s compound verbs coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect. They’re three more additions to the list of compound verbs formed via reanalysis and backformation from compound verbal nouns. To recap with just one of them: The compound noun coin-collecting (or maybe coin collection) is reanalyzed as the suffix -ing attaching to a putative verb coin-collect. Remove the suffix and you’re left with that newly formed verb.

By now, this process is old hat to regular readers (and if it’s not, it will be by the time you finish reading the other posts in the Backformation category). What especially struck me about Doug’s phrasing was that this backformation process is so strong in his grammar that not only do compound verbs like coin-collect prevail over verb phrases like collect coins, but they do so even when using the regular VP syntax would save him two repetitions of a word. He could have just said,

I collect coins, bottlecaps, and rocks.

You know what would be even more unusual than that? If the verb-compounding became so much the norm that Doug could say this:

I coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect.

Maybe there are even speakers out there now who can do that. If you’re reading, make yourselves known in the comments!

Posted in Backformation, Cats, Christmas-related, Compound words, The darndest things | 8 Comments »

Dickheads, Buttheads, and Assholes

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2010

In his “On Language” column this Sunday (available online already) Ben Zimmer talks about the language used in Mad Men, and at one point has to use the circumlocution “a scatological slur for a person’s head”. In a companion post at Language Log, where he can write more candidly, he reveals that the actual word was shithead. He adds:

On further reflection, I’m not terribly fond of the phrase “a scatological slur for a person’s head.” After all, shithead is a slur for a person, through a metonymic reference to that person’s head (or the contents thereof).

OK, that’s it. It’s time for me to dust off my post from Sept. 17, 2004, the post that my brother was kind enough to call “Best. Linguistics. Post. Ever.” At the time I called it “Endocentric and Exocentric Insults,” and gave only a disclaimer followed by a link (which I later removed) to the actual post elsewhere. The post stored elsewhere had the title you see here, with a handful of images illustrating possible interpretations of the insult dickhead. It was primarily the pictures that persuaded me to keep the main post off the blog, but now I’m putting it on, minus the pictures, and slightly edited for clarity.


Years ago, someone called a close friend of mine a dickhead. It just so happened I was there when he did it, and I was reminded of a question I’d had about this word. So I asked the guy, did he mean to say that this good friend of mine was:

    someone whose entire being consisted of the head of a dick?
    someone who had a dick for a head?

I received the pitifully uninsightful (and patently false) answer: “It doesn’t mean either! It’s just an insult!”

It doesn’t mean either? Of course it does! The fact that it has one of the above meanings, figuratively applied to a person, is what gives the insult its sting. That’s why it’s more cutting than, say, nerd. When you call someone a dickhead, you’re saying that you find this person as offensive as a walking, talking head of a penis! Well, either that or a creature that looks like a human being from the neck down, and like a penis from the neck up.

Perhaps comparing dickhead to a few other model insults would shed some light on its meaning. If dickhead the insult means “head of a dick”, then it is an example of an endocentric compound noun — that is, a noun made up of words X and Y, where Y is a noun, and XY denotes a kind of Y. Y is said to be, no pun intended, the head of the compound. For example, in doghouse, X = dog, Y = house, and a doghouse is a kind of house. Similarly, in dickhead, X = dick, Y = head, and a dickhead is a kind of head, specifically the kind you find at the end of a dick. (The end without a man attached, that is.)

Are there other insults that are endocentric compound nouns? Asshole comes to mind. In its literal sense, asshole is a compound noun, with hole as its head: An asshole is a kind of hole. Figuratively, an asshole is someone offensive and obstinate enough to be compared to an anal sphincter. (And just to reiterate that asshole is not “just an insult,” the expression tear [someone] a new asshole is proof that the literal meaning is still there, to be enjoyed by those who take the time to experience the word as if for the first time. I’ll never forget hearing Igor Iskhakov burst out laughing when he first heard this strange new English word and parsed it out.)

On the other hand, if dickhead the insult means “having a dick for a head,” it is an example of an exocentric, or headless, compound noun. In this kind of compound, it is not true that X is a kind of Y (or for that matter, that Y is a kind of X). In other words, neither X nor Y is the head of the compound. So if dickhead means “having a dick for a head,” then a dickhead is not a kind of head. It’s a kind of person.

Are there other insults that are exocentric compound nouns? Yes again: butthead. Since butts, unlike dicks, don’t have heads, the ambiguity seen in dickhead doesn’t arise here. A butthead is not a kind of head; it’s a kind of person: someone who (figuratively) has a butt for a head.

Since both readings of dickhead have precedents, the analysis so far hasn’t given a definitive answer. It’s time for some empirical evidence. Now I could have surveyed 100 people on what dickhead means to them, but I imagine most would have said it’s an insult, just like the guy who put the label on that good friend of mine. So instead, I did a Google image search, and got 400-some hits for the word. Many of them were just pictures of ordinary people who evidently were dickheads in someone’s opinion. But 18 of them provided clear evidence. For the endocentric reading (parallel to asshole), I found no images at all. For the exocentric meaning (parallel to butthead), I found six images of people whose heads consisted of a penis or penises.

So the exocentric meaning clearly more prevalent than the endocentric one. But wait, there’s more! The other 12 images I collected illustrated meanings for dickhead that I hadn’t thought about.

Four of them were pictures of people with penises on top of their heads. This meaning looks to be almost as prevalent as the “dick for a head” meaning, but I was surprised by it. It really had never occurred to me. It’s a little tricky deciding if this is an endocentric or an exocentric meaning. It’s true that dickhead as an endocentric compound doesn’t have to mean “head of a dick”; it just has to denote a head that has something or other to do with a dick, and a head with a dick on top of it would certainly qualify. But referring to an entire person as a dickhead because they have a dick on their head seemed a bit strange to me at first. However, that’s starting with the word and imagining a referent. If you start off with a referent, the word comes naturally. If you want to talk about someone standing right there with a dick on their head, what other word would you use? There is precedent for this meaning, too: Google image searches for butthead, shithead, and meathead all returned more images of heads with butts, shit, or meat on them than of heads consisting of a butt, shit, or meat. And of course there are also cheeseheads. I’m calling this as an exocentric meaning, since these dickheads are still a kind of people, not a kind of head. To capture both meanings — someone who has a dick (or dicks) for a head and someone who has a dick (or dicks) on their head — we have to think of the exocentric compound as having a more general meaning: “someone whose head has something to do with a dick,” whether by being one or possessing one. (Or more.)

This “for a head” vs. “on a head” dichotomy appears in the last eight of the images I found. Two of them pictured people with dickheads for a head, and one of these two went further in having not only the person’s head as the head of a penis, but also the body as the shaft of the penis. The other six images pictured people with dickheads on their (regular) head. I have to tell you, I don’t think dickhead should have this “someone whose head has something to do with a dickHEAD” meaning. I think the word that is called for here would be dickhead-head, but probably nobody who hits upon that word likes having the two heads in a row.

So to conclude, dickheads are more like buttheads than assholes, and there are more kinds of dickhead than you’d probably care to imagine.

Posted in Compound words, Lexical semantics, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo | 4 Comments »

When Awe Strikes

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2010

I stole this title, but more on that in a minute. I said in my last post that in my next one, I’d have more to say about whether who and what was found was a true case of VP ellipsis. I’m still looking into that, but in the meantime, Visual Thesaurus has published a column I wrote on the words awesome, awful, and awe, and I wanted to do a tie-in post here with some stuff that didn’t make it into the column.

Near the end of the column, I mention some alternatives to awesome that still have a primary meaning of something that induces fear. Some of the alternatives were awe-inspiring and awe-commanding. One that I didn’t put in was awe-striking.

Awe-striking? If you’re like me (or at least, if your mental grammar is like mine), this is your reaction to the participial adjective awe-striking. It’s just wrong. That was certainly the reaction of Laura in a post at Terribly Write–the very post, in fact, whose title I stole. (Thanks, Laura! Great title!)

But why is awe-striking so bad? It comes, of course, from the adjective awe-struck, which uses the past participle struck instead of the present participle striking. Compound verbal adjectives like this, following the Noun+Past_Participle pattern, usually have that noun referring to the agent of the action named by the verb. Let me illustrate. Take a look at this famous actor:

No doubt you will have noticed her bee-stung lips and wind-swept hair. In bee-stung, we are to imagine that a bee did the stinging. In wind-swept, the wind did the sweeping. Similarly, in awe-struck, awe did the striking.

But when you make a compound verbal adjective with the Noun+Present_Participle pattern, the noun doesn’t refer to the agent; it refers to the patient, as in heartbreaking. It can’t refer to the agent. That’s reserved for the noun the adjective modifies, or the subject of the sentence if the adjective finishes out a verb phrase headed by be. For example, man-eating tiger refers to a tiger that eats men, and This movie is heartbreaking means that the movie breaks hearts. For that reason, the adjective awe-striking suggests you can strike an intangible thing, awe, because it certainly can’t mean that awe does the striking.

Or can it? On a sudden suspicion, I Googled awe-striking, and found this page on Wordnik, with some examples as early as the 1800s, like this one from Mary Shelley:

Strange system! riddle of the Sphynx, most awe-striking! that thus man remains, while we the individuals pass away.

Wha–? How is this possible?

Here’s what I think now. For people like me, the awe in awe-struck refers to an agent, and therefore can’t participate in an adjective like awe-striking. However, some speakers think of the awe in awe-struck not as an agent, but an instrument. Awe doesn’t strike people; someone or something strikes someone else with awe. It works the same way as faith in faith-healing evangelist: The evangelist heals people (the patient) with faith (the instrument).

Even so, the precedent’s a bit shaky. I can get faith-healing evangelist, but hand-making ice cream artisan sounds like someone who makes hands out of ice cream, not someone who makes ice cream by hand. Steel-cutting oatmeal manufacturer sounds like an oatmeal manufacturer who, for whatever reason, likes to cut steel, not someone who makes oatmeal by cutting (oats) with steel.

If awe-striking is a part of your lexicon, let us know what it means to you. If not, why isn’t it?

Posted in Compound words, Gerunds and participles, Semantics | 10 Comments »

Hate to Poop the Party…

Posted by Neal on October 12, 2009

Every party has a pooper; that's why we invited you.Regular reader and Beatles fan Gordon P. Hemsley had a question:

I just came across the phrase “poop the party” (as in, “sorry to poop the party”). I’ve never heard this phrase before, but it appears to be a back-formation (of sorts) from “partypooper”. Google gives me ~55,000 hits, but many of them appear to include punctuation like colons and hyphens within the phrase.

Perhaps you could do better research?

There would seem to be a need for a verb denoting what a party pooper does. As I’ve written before, compound nouns of the form [Noun]+[Verb]+er/ing often give rise to backformed verbs, such as rollercoast, sightsee, arm flap, problem solve, serial kill, fence sit, and peoplewatch and underage drink.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Compound words, Diachronic, Potty on, dudes! | 5 Comments »

The Nouning of Back to School

Posted by Neal on September 3, 2009

I wrote about this a few years ago; here’s my updated report at Visual Thesaurus, using corpus resources that weren’t available back then.

Posted in Compound words, Diachronic | 3 Comments »