Data points: interpreting compounds 1/3/12

Perhaps in the same vein as silent cowboy (here), in which the first element functions as N rather than Adj, I now offer annual labiate ‘labiate plant that is an annual’, not ‘labiate plant that is yearly’ (but the category identification is by no means clear, and the composite might be ambiguous).

I thought of this example yesterday while looking at a planter box outside my local Gordon Biersch, in which a coleus plant (gorgeous foliage throughout the summer, and then pretty little labiate flowers) was rapidly approaching death. My Sunset New Western Garden Book tells me that coleus (Solenostemon) varieties are, in fact, perennials usually grown as annuals, but this one was behaving like an annual.

Photos of coleus (just because they’re pretty):

There are other labiates that are straightforwardly annuals. These annual labiates — identified as such on a number of websites — include summer savory (Satureja hortensis), basil (Ocimum basilicum), and perilla or shiso (Perilla frutescens). (Labiates are plants in the family Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae: plants with lipped flowers, many with square stems, and many with aromatic parts, like the ones above, and also sage, mint, thyme, catnip, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, monarda/bergamot, and lavender.)

Now, the subtle question of whether annual in annual labiate is Adj or N. Adj uses of annual are older than N uses, but for plants, the two uses appear (in OED2 cites) very close together in time: Adj ‘existing or lasting for a year only’ (of plants, from 1626), N ‘an annual plant; one that lives only for a year (perpetuating itself by seed, so that there is an annual succession of new plants)’, with cites from 1685 on. It seems likely that the N use for plants is a truncation of annual plant.

I find it easiest to read annual N as having the Adj annual when the N is a non-technical term denoting a large class of plants — plant, vine, herb — but less easy otherwise. So my first reaction to annual labiate was to read annual as N, but I could see that others might have a different reaction, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to claim that the composite is ambiguous.

Testing whether the first element of a particular composite is Adj or N or ambiguous between the two can be tricky. At the moment, the evidence I have suggests ambiguity; I find both coordination of annual with clear Adjs and coordination with clear Ns possible, though a bit on the awkward side:

Shrubby and annual labiates both need special care. [clear Adj shrubby]

Shrub and annual labiates both need special care. [clear N shrub]


4 Responses to “Data points: interpreting compounds 1/3/12”

  1. timelesslady Says:

    Hi, Beautiful pictures of coleus…one of my favorite plants. I collect seed every autumn from my spent plants and have grown stock from the same original plants for over a decade. Love watching new colors, swirls and ripples in the leaves evolve. Kathy

  2. Two plants of the season « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] [Digression on the acanthuses and their relationship to the Lamiaceae or Labiatae (the "mint family"). Acanthuses have two of the salient properties of the mint family, labiate flowers and square stems, but they are in a distinct family, the Acanthaceae. On Labiatae, see here. […]

  3. Labiates « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posting on Melissa (and Monarda), plants in the labiate (Lamiaceae) family, with a bow back to an earlier posting on labiates, especially coleus (Solenostemon). These are favorite plants of mine — […]

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