Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Compound words’ Category

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.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Compound words | 6 Comments »

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!”

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Posted in Compound words | 3 Comments »

A Right-Node Wrapping; a Backformation; and a Double Passive Gone Wrong

Posted by Neal on May 17, 2007

Here are a few recently observed examples of things that I’ve talked about on numerous other occasions.

First, here’s one more right-node wrapping (aka “Friends in Low Places” coordination), from Monday’s episode of Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviews Dr. Melinda Merck, author of book on forensic veterinary medicine. Terry asks about one case:

What was her story, like why was she collecting so many cats and then either killing or allowing them to die? (13.23-13.30)

And also on the subject of veterinary medicine, here’s a backformation I heard at the vet’s office earlier today:

…and here’s his rabie tag; you’ll need to put that on him…

Rabies is a borrowing from Latin; in Latin, it’s a fifth declension noun, and -es is the nominative singular ending, not a plural marker. But in English, rabies has occasionally been interpreted as a plural noun. If it’s a plural noun in your lexicon, then you’ll need to strip off the –s to make it singular in order to form compounds such as rabie tag and rabie shot.

Lastly, here’s an attempt at a double passive that Glen noticed and brought to my attention. It may be that sentences such as The marshmallows were forgotten to be brought (meaning, “Someone forgot to bring the marshmallows”) are ungrammatical in your English. They’re not grammatical in mine, though it would be convenient if they were. But even though they’re not grammatical for me, they don’t quite sound like errors, either. This, though, sounds like an error:

“A lot of guys I know, actually, have become radicalized, or initially took the first steps towards learning more about Islam and their way of life as a result of them being tried to being forced to marry someone they don’t want to marry,” Butt tells Simon. (link)

It would have been better (though still not quite grammatical for me) if he’d said being tried to be forced. As for tried to being, not only is it not in my grammar, I’d bet it’s not in Butt’s grammar either.

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Double passives, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 2 Comments »

They Went Sightseeing, and I Underage Drank

Posted by Neal on April 21, 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to write about backformation, but Russell at Noncompositional reminded me of it with this post about the verb sightsee, backformed from the Noun+Gerund compound sightseeing. He observes that this verb can’t do all the things that a fully evolved verb can. Sure, you can say, “They’re sightseeing,” but can you have sightsee on its own, with no suffix, as in I like to sightsee, or We sightsee every weekend? Some people can, but how about the word in a finite form with a suffix (other than -ing) on it? Something like He sightsees when he travels? Not so good. And forget about the past-tense: wiith see having an irregular past-tense, sightsaw is just about impossible. Russell points to this posting by languagehat, where it is established that went sightseeing is the way to go when the past tense is needed.

The discussion reminded me of a post I wrote in 2004 about the verb underage drink, backformed from underage drinking/drinker. At the time, when I Googled the phrase underage drank, I got only 50-some hits. Now, though, that search pulls up at least 100 hits, including gems such as:

  • My parents knew when I underage drank. (link)
  • It’s not the store’s fault, the guy who bought the beer was of age, no one underage drank from the keg, the keg was self-serve and no one but the drunk is responsible. (link)

Underage drank is still very rare, but seems to be on the increase. It wins out over gone/went underage drinking, which gets only about 30 hits. Assuming underage drink can function as a verb in your grammar, how would you pit it into the past tense?

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Gerunds and participles | 6 Comments »

Go… Bucks?

Posted by Neal on November 18, 2006

When I first moved to Ohio, I’d thought they were crazy about football at the University of Texas, but I soon revised my estimation. I went to some campus-area bars with some guys I’d met in my dorm and in each one they were playing the Ohio State fight song, and, for some reason they also were very fond of some song from the 60s called “Hang On, Sloopy.” My roommate had to educate me about OSU football, telling me about some guy that used to coach here named Woody Hayes (ah, he must be who they named Woody Hayes Drive after), about the fans (including my roommate) in Block O, and all about some big rivalry that OSU had with the University of Michigan.

Growing up here, Doug is getting a thorough Ohio acculturation, including OSU football appreciation. He and his mom sometimes watch the OSU game on TV, and I’ve even heard him say things like, “Third and TWELVE?! Oh, man!” He and she were watching the game one Saturday last month, while I looked on from the kitchen, where I was peeling apples for a pie. “Hey! What’s wrong with this picture?” my wife said at one point. Hey, that was nothing. Doug even went to a Buckeye football game a few weeks ago, not with me, who graduated from OSU, but with his mom! And his acculturation continues at school, where he’s soaking up the anti-Michigan spirit. Yesterday, the dress-code restriction on anything written on shirts was temporarily lifted, so that on the last day of “Michigan week,” kids could wear their Buckeye gear… or Michigan stuff, to be fair. A few kids did, but other, less confident ones (including at least one friend of Doug’s) pretend to be OSU fans among their classmates and root for Michigan in the privacy of their homes.

So here it is the day of the OSU-Michigan game, with the undefeated #1 and undefeated #2 teams in the nation (see, I know these things now!) facing each other in a few hours, and all week, I’ve been hearing “Go, Bucks!” even more than usual in Ohio in the fall. I was aware that Ohio was known as the Buckeye State before moving here, and I think I even knew that the OSU team was known as the Buckeyes. But even after living through 15 football seasons, the phrase Go, Bucks! is a little strange to me.

I learned that the buckeye was the nut from a tree that was common in Ohio, so named because it resembled the eye of a buck.


OK, so buckeye was created by compounding. So far, so good. And the football team (and other teams) from Ohio State University were called buckeyes because Ohio was the buckeye state. Fine. But when I take a compound word apart, it doesn’t have the meaning of the whole compound. I can’t call a doghouse a dog, or an apple pie an apple, or a TV dinner a TV. So when people refer to the Buckeye football team as the Bucks, I wonder why it doesn’t bother them that they’re making it sound like OSU’s mascot is a male deer instead of a nut that resembles the eye of a male deer.

On the other hand, State of the Union can be synonymous with State of the Union address; Grand Slam with Grand Slam tournament; and molest with sexually molest, so why am I complaining? Actually, though, I don’t think this is a case of one word in a compound absorbing the meaning of the entire compound. If it were, I think buck would refer to actual buckeye nuts, but I’ve never heard anyone call a buckeye nuts a buck. People make necklaces out of buckeyes to wear to the games and tailgate parties, but they’re called buckeye necklaces, not buck necklaces. I think buck meaning “member of an OSU sports team” is a case of the word being shortened (linguists refer to it as clipping) without regard to whether it’s a compound, acronym, or anything else. In other words, buckeye went on referring to buckeye nuts, while Buckeye formed its semi-independent meaning solidly associated with OSU sports teams before getting shortened to Buck. Etymology is not destiny, as they say.

Posted in Compound words, Lexical semantics, Ohioana, Sports, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »

How Many Grand Slams in a Grand Slam?

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2006

This was the headline in the sports section of the New York Times a few days ago, before Roger Federer lost the French Open to Rafael Nadal:

Federer, Eyeing 4th Grand Slam, Faces Nadal in Final

I could just imagine Dad reading the headline, and then saying to Mom, “No, Federer is not ‘eyeing a fourth Grand Slam’! To get a fourth Grand Slam, he’d have to have three Grand Slams already, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t even have one Grand Slam. The only tennis players ever to win even one Grand Slam were Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver, Margaret Smith Court, and Steffi Graf.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Compound words | 9 Comments »

Have No Fear, Baby Buttlegs Is Here!

Posted by Neal on April 30, 2006

I first had angel food cake when I was three or four years old, and for years pronounced angel food cake the way I had heard it back then. Whoever had introduced me to it had pronounced it as angel FOOD cake, with the primary stress on food, the same intonation pattern you’d have in, say, dormroom KEG party. As a teenager, I became aware that some, perhaps even many, people pronounced angel food cake differently, putting the primary stress on angel, like this: ANGEL food cake.

Finally, one day I’d heard enough tokens of ANGEL food cake that I stopped to think about that pronunciation compared with my own, and I realized that it was my pronunciation that was strange. Angel FOOD cake sounds like it means “foodcake, of the angel variety.” Foodcake? What’s foodcake? In contrast, ANGEL food cake sounds like it means “a kind of cake so delicious that it is like unto the food of the very angels.” (As for why it’s not pronounced ANGEL food CAKE, analogous to chocolate CAKE or blueberry PIE, with stress on the final word, I don’t know.)

Anyway, one day after I’d gotten the whole foodcake issue settled, I was sitting reading the newspaper when my wife came into the room…

Her: I have baby BUTT legs!
Me: Huh?
Her: Look, I have baby BUTT legs.
Me: What’s a butt leg?
Her: No, I shaved my legs, see? Now they’re like a baby’s butt.
Me: Oh! BABY butt legs!

I felt them. Her story checked out. Why she pronounced it baby BUTT legs instead of BABY butt legs is a mystery, especially since she doesn’t do the “foodcake” pronunciation of angel food cake. But for years after that exchange, my wife made a point of mentioning her “buttlegs” whenever she’d shaved her legs. Sometimes I try to picture what a buttleg really would look like, but without much success. And never mind figuring out what a baby one would look like. Or maybe baby BUTT legs would more likely be a proper name: Baby Buttlegs. Sounds like some kind of a goofball superhero’s name, kind of like Super Diaper Baby.

Posted in Compound words, Phonetics and phonology | 3 Comments »

Booger-Eating and Eating Boogers

Posted by Neal on April 19, 2006

A local alternative newspaper had this to say about the movie The Benchwarmers, which opened last weekend:

Why see this film? Maybe you think it’s fun to see adults beat children [at games], or maybe you like booger eating, bug eating, and projectile vomiting.
(Hope Madden, “A film only Adam Sandler could like,” The Other Paper, April 13-19, 2006, p. 25)

As I consider whether I should see this film, then, I must ask myself: Do I like booger-eating?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Compound words, Gerunds and participles | 3 Comments »

Knowing One’s Place

Posted by Neal on February 27, 2006

Fellow OSU grad Liz Strand had a question that she posed to the OSU Linguistic Department’s Phonies a few months ago. She wrote:

I have a question that I was hoping to get your expert Phonies input on. We listen to a lot of calls at [my workplace] and transcribe a good share of the utterances that come into our telephone-based applications…. [C]all-listening helps us diagnose design and performance issues, and transcriptions are used to tune application behavior and enhance our recognition performance.

We listen to tons of addresses, and someone recently noted an interesting pattern of stress on the street name segment of addresses, but none of us is sure how to explain it:

  1. when the word “Street” is part of the street name, it’s UNSTRESSED in relation to the descriptive portion of the street name (controlling for the influence of contrastive stress, etc.)
  2. when the structurally-similar (single closed syllable) “Court” or “Road” or “Lane” are part of the street name, they’re STRESSED in relation to the descriptive portion of the street name


  • “I live at 469 ELM Street.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm COURT.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm ROAD.”
  • “I live at 469 Elm LANE.”

The pattern of word-level stress seems to hold for longer descriptive names (“Market,” “Mississippi,” etc.) and street types (“Avenue,” “Boulevard,” “Expressway,” etc.), as well.

Any inklings as to what’s going on here?

One respondent suggested that this happened because in a phrase such as Elm Street, street is the less informative word–street is the default name suffix for a street, and naturally receives less stress than the word that carries more information, Elm.

This explanation sounds reasonable enough, but I have two problems with it. First, I’d say road and street are close to synonymy as terms denoting paths for vehicles to travel on. Granted, they’re not entirely synonymous: for me, street implies paving, whereas a road could be paved or of dirt. And I hardly ever hear about country streets. Even so, in a city, I could use either term to refer to any given paved pathway for vehicles. So I’d predict that both Elm Street and Elm Road would be stressed on Elm, but instead we get the contrast that Liz mentions.

The second problem is one I noticed in the mid-90s, during the heyday of a popular evening soap opera. On the radio they’d play ads for the latest steamy episode, introducing it with, “Tonight, on Melrose PLACE…” Every time they’d say it, I’d shake my head and silently ask myself, “What is with you people? Why do you keep saying Melrose PLACE instead of MELROSE Place?” I brought it up in Arnold Zwicky‘s morphology class when we talked about compound words, and was surprised to find Arnold and everyone else claiming that they accented place the same as court, avenue, road, or lane. But when I played Monopoly as a kid, I don’t remember anyone ever putting a hotel on Park PLACE. And it so happens that I live on a street with place for its suffix, and my wife and neighbors always deaccent it, just as we do for street.

So at least for speakers of my street-naming dialect, the answer to Liz’s question isn’t so simple. I think it would be neat if there were an explanation more interesting than just saying it’s an idiosyncratic fact about the word street (and for some people, place) that it is deaccented as part of a street name, while all other streetname suffixes (with the possible exception of place) are accented. But I don’t know of such an explanation. If any of you out there do, I’d be interested in hearing it, as would Liz and her colleagues.

Posted in Compound words, Stress and focus | 5 Comments »

Tweetle Poodles and Beetle Noodles

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2005

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss is one of my favorite books to read to Doug and Adam. Adam likes repeating the “goo goose” section, and after Doug had mastered his /l/ phoneme, I recorded him reciting the “Luke Luck likes lakes” bit. But my favorite part is the “tweetle beetle” bit at the end. I’ve had a question about it for a while, though, and I’m going to settle it right here and now.

OK, so the segment starts like this:

When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a
[[tweetle beetle] battle].

So far, so good. I can follow the compounding. Next:

And when they battle in a puddle, it’s a
[[tweetle beetle] [puddle battle]].

We’re still good. Now we come to:

And when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle, they call it a
[[tweetle beetle] [puddle [paddle battle]]].

Now we turn the page and come to:

When beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle, they call this a
[[tweetle beetle]
   [[[bottle puddle] [paddle battle]] muddle]]

And turning the page again, we learn that:

When beetles fight these battles in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodle’s eating noodles, they call this a
muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle.

That line always trips me up, and I’ve suspected that it wasn’t just due to the extra length of the compound, but I couldn’t sit there and parse it out with the boys waiting for me to finish the book. I’m parsing it out now, though, and I see that I’m right: Dr. Seuss’s syntax is wrong. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty obvious, with the separating of tweetle from beetle and poodle from noodle. (Can I say, “Now that I think about it, it’s pretty obvious,” or is that a contradiction?) I think what Dr. Seuss actually meant was:

 [noodle poodle]
  [tweetle beetle]
   [[bottle puddle] [paddle battle]]

This would have fit just as well as the actual phrase Dr. Seuss used, so I wonder why he didn’t use it. Was it to show that even Mr. Fox himself (the speaker) got confused sometimes? Was it just for the fun of creating a cross-serial dependency with tweetle, beetle, poodle, and noodle?

Posted in Compound words, Kids' entertainment | 11 Comments »