Composite puzzles

From the front page of today’s New York Times, “Diverse Sources Pour Cash Into Taliban’s War Chest” by Eric Schmitt:

The Taliban in Afghanistan are running a sophisticated financial network to pay for their insurgent operations, raising hundred of millions of dollars from the illicit drug trade, kidnappings, extortion and foreign donations …

A point of linguistic interest is the composite nominal insurgent operations, in particular its first element, insurgent: noun or adjective? It has uses as a noun (OED2 has it from 1765) and uses as an adjective (from 1814 in OED2).

Either is possible. The whole nominal could be a compound noun meaning, roughly, ‘operations by insurgents’, parallel to invader operations:

US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of US invader operations, claimed that two crewmen escaped injury and the helicopter was recovered. (link)

Or the nominal could involve a “non-predicating adjective” insurgent, in a composite with an adjective understood not as predicating some property of the head noun but as evoking some noun — as in electrical engineer (where electricity is evoked) and transformational grammar (where transformation(s) is evoked) — a type of nominal discussed several times on Language Log, for instance here.

What makes things tricky is that if insurgent is a non-predicating adjective in insurgent operations, then the evoked noun is the noun insurgent(s). Whoops.

It is, of course, possible that insurgent operations has one analysis in one set of examples, another in a different set.

There are ways to check out these possibilities. In particular, we can use the very strong tendency for like to conjoin with like and look at the pattern

insurgent and * operations

(and of course composites with head nouns other than operations, but this noun will do for my current purposes), to see what sorts of things insurgent conjoins with.

What we find is, first, some other words that are indeterminate in category:

insurgent and terrorist operations, insurgent and counterinsurgent operations, insurgent and jihadist operations, insurgent and criminal operations

But then some clear nouns:

insurgent and IED [improvised explosive device] operations, insurgent and government operations, insurgent and terror operations

and some that are probably or surely adjectives:

insurgent and sectarian operations, insurgent and conventional operations, insurgent and subversive operations, insurgent and military operations

My answer to the question “noun or adjective?” is then: sometimes one, sometimes the other.

(Side note: over on Language Log I’ve  posted about Jan Freeman’s new book annotating Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right. Bierce was hostile to non-predicating adjectives. He objected to insane asylum (p. 100 in Freeman’s book) on logical grounds:

Obviously an asylum cannot be unsound in mind. Say, asylum for the insane.

Freeman notes in her comment that

In the mid-19th century, some people liked to argue that “grammatical error” was a nonsensical notion, because an error in language could not be “grammatical.”

A little “logic” can be a dangerous thing.)

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