Interpreting compounds

A cartoon for the weekend, from Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange:

Noun-noun compounds are sometimes hard to interpret because the semantic relationship between the two nouns is so distant (canoe wife, for instance); you have to know a lot to supply the connection. Both Language Log and this blog frequently remark on such “distant” N+N compounds, especially (but not only) in headlines, where they’re a useful device for headline writers struggling to convey whole situations in a few words — but are baffling to readers who aren’t in the know.

Looking ahead to future postings, I’ll refer to distant N+N compounds as constituting a subtype of Type X composites. Ordinary N+N compounds are, in contrast, Type O composites, and the semantic relation between their parts is drawn from a relatively small set of relationships.

Particular examples can be ambiguous as between Type O and Type X. The famous example pumpkin bus (well, famous if you’re into N+N compounds) can be understood as Type O, in which case there are several sub-ambiguities, depending on which of the canonical semantic relationship is intended (‘bus that looks like a pumpkin, is in the shape of a pumpkin’, ‘bus containing pumpkins, bus that is full of pumpkins’, ‘bus for (transporting) pumpkins’, ‘bus made out of pumpkins’); there’s even a non-compound interpretation in which pumpkin is an adjective referring to a color).

But then there are Type X interpretations, no end of them, all involving buses somehow or another connected to pumpkins, or a pumpkin. In the famous example, the bus in question was the one that went past a pumpkin patch. You had to have been there.

Poodle skirt in the cartoon is just a Type O compound, but there are still several possible interpretations. The conventionalized sense is historically a resemblance compound (‘skirt that looks like a poodle’), but there are other possibilities: in particular, it could be a composition compound (‘a skirt made from poodles’), which is what Cruella de Vil, with her antipathy to dogs, was hoping for. Too bad, Cruella.

2 Responses to “Interpreting compounds”

  1. X diet « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] unusual; they’re not “distant” compounds (of Type X, in the terminology here, on interpreting compounds), but just ordinary ones (of Type O). But as I noted in my […]

  2. Data points: distant compounds 11/19/10 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] sale rapist resists interpretation as an ordinary (Type O) N+N compound, in which the semantic relationship between the head N rapist and the modifier N vitamin sale […]

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