Bird seed

Yesterday, a Bizarro with an ambiguity in auto parts. Today, another ambiguity, somewhat simpler than that one:

Two interpretations for the N + N compound bird seed, differing in the semantic relationship between the head N seed and the accompanying N bird — one like parrot seed ‘seed to give parrots, to feed parrots’, one like grass seed ‘seed of grass, i.e., of the grass plant; seed to grow grass from’.

As I’ve noted here many times before, N + N compounds are subject to a (basically open-ended) range of interpretations, ‘N2 related to N1’, with the nature of the relationship calculated from the context of utterance. But there’s a class of “standard” relationships (source, recipient, use, etc.) with sets of relatively conventionalized examples exhibiting that relationship and so interpretable with little or no contextual support. So we get a source interpretation for:

(1) grass seed, sunflower seed, pine seed, bean seed, radish seed, …

and a recipient interpretation for:

(2) parrot seed, wild bird seed, pigeon seed, canary seed, …

For (1) consider, the Scotts Co. site, offering Scotts grass seed of many varieties.

(Note: for plants with very small seeds, like grasses, the usual N + N compound has the mass noun seed as head, but for plants with larger seeds, like sunflowers, the usual compound has the plural count noun seeds as head, though the mass variant is possible as well.)

For (2) consider the Jones Seed Co. site, offering parrot seed, parakeet seed, pigeon seed, finch seed, etc.

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