X diet

Another small follow-up to my first posting on diets, this time about N+N compounds of the form X diet, denoting types of diet. These aren’t particularly 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 “interpreting compounds” posting, even those of Type O can exhibit multiple interpretations.

In Type O N+N compounds, the relationship between the denotation of the head N (the second) and the denotation of the modifier N (the first) is one of a small number of canonical relationships (resemblance, composition, etc.) — while in Type X any sort of relationship is possible, and you need to have a good bit of background information to work out what relationship was intended (Language Log has collected lots of baffling Type X examples, like canoe wife).

But the small number of canonical relationships for Type O compounds is not the number 1. Look at some examples of X diet:

(1) rice diet ‘diet of rice’ [composition]
(2) anemia diet ‘diet for anemia’ [purpose: avoidance]
(3) weight-loss diet ‘diet for weight loss’ [purpose: achievement]

In (1), rice is the primary, or at least a major, component of the diet.

In (2), anemia is the purpose of the diet, in that the diet is supposed to treat anemia (reduce it or eliminate it).

In (3) weight loss is the purpose of the diet, in that the diet is supposed to achieve weight loss.

The difference between (1) and the others isn’t normally troublesome, because in (1), the first N denotes a food, while in the others it denotes a condition, and the two sorts of nouns scarcely overlap. It might seem that (2) versus (3) could be problematic, but in practice the conditions you want to avoid and the ones you want to achieve sorts themselves out in context.

3 Responses to “X diet”

  1. mae Says:

    …which gives rise to the joke (better aloud) “I’m on a seafood diet — I see food, I eat it.”

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    Nice analysis — I’m enjoying these.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To irrationalpoint: Your comment is of a type that cries SPAM — an expression of approval without further content. Expressions of opinion — approval, disapproval, puzzlement, whatever, sometimes with a few details from the posting the comment is based on — are often spread as spam, in the hope that readers will click on the address provided, and so get sucked into the spreading economy of spam themselves.

    (I’m now getting 10 spam comments on this blog for every legitimate one — and the ratio for Language Log is much much higher. So coping with spam, even with an excellent filter that marks comments for moderation, is definitely time-consuming.)

    In this case, irrationalpoint is a known commenter on this blog, and I let his comment stand.

    But it might be better if thank-yous were sent as appreciative e-mail rather than distributed as comments for the world to read.

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