Ruthie vs. N + N compounds

A recent One Big Happy, with Ruthie and monkey bread:


At issue is the N + N compound monkey bread.

Ruthie is assuming that the semantic relationship between the head (N2) and the modifier (N1) is one from a relatively small set of standard relationships that you can use to create and understand novel combinations. One of these is physical resemblance: monkey bread could be bread made in the shape of a monkey — but Ruthie has only to look at the stuff to see that that’s not so. Another is source, or material of composition: monkey bread could be bread made from, or of, monkeys; I assume that Ruthie finds that too disgusting to contemplate. Instead, she opts for creator, or agent, as the role of monkeys in monkey bread: monkeys make the stuff, by baking.

But novel combinations can also be deeply context-bound, comprehensible only if you know the history. Postings on LLog and here have looked at many of these (Geoff Pullum’s canoe wife, and the classic example from the literature, pumpkin bus, for example).

Then on top of that, large numbers of N + N compounds have become fixed expressions — and monkey bread is one of those. There are several routes to lexicalization, but “distant”, highly context-bound combinations are one source, and might be at work in monkey bread: it’s been suggested several times that monkey bread has something to do with the monkey puzzle tree. In any case, we don’t in fact know what the origin of the expression is.

Now: on the food, which is both American and fairly recent. From Wikipedia:

Monkey bread, also called monkey puzzle bread, sticky bread, African coffee cake, golden crown, pinch-me cake, pluck-it cake, bubbleloaf and monkey brains, is a sweet, sticky, gooey pastry served in the United States for breakfast or as a treat. It consists of pieces of soft bread with cinnamon sprinkled on it and is often served at fairs and other parks.

… Recipes for the bread first appeared in American women’s magazines and community cookbooks in the 1950s, but the dish is still virtually unknown outside the United States. The bread is made with pieces of sweet yeast dough (often frozen), which are baked in a cake pan at high heat after first being individually covered in melted butter, cinnamon, sugar, and chopped pecans. It is traditionally served hot so that the baked segments can be easily torn away with the fingers and eaten by hand.


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