A compound puzzle

Thursday on ADS-L, a report from Wilson Gray, with his baffled reaction (shared by others in the mailing list):

Headline of political ad: “Meet TPP Champion [Name]!”

Body of political ad: “Among a handful of shining examples of fighters for social, economic, and environmental justice stands [Name], who has opposed the TPP and TTIP since before most of us had even heard about them!” [TPP: Trans Pacific Partnership; TTIP: Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership]

Is this headline meant to convey the idea, somehow, that [Name] is a “TPP champion” not in the obvious sense that he champions the TPP against the left, but, instead, in the opposite sense, that he champions the left against the TPP?

How are we to interpret X champion? It’ll be helpful to get away from the particulars of this particular example by introducing an X that (I hope) will have no political associations for my readers: Fosdick. What might Fosdick champion refer to? In NPs like:

a Fosdick champion, the Fosdick champion, our Fosdick champion

an early Fosdick champion, the celebrated Fosdick champion, our greatest Fosdick champion

N1 + N2 compounds in general. The minimum thing you can say about the interpretation of a subsective N1 + N2 compound is that it’s (in shorthand) ‘an N2 that bears some specific relation R to N2’. In principle, R could be anything, and there are plenty of examples of very specific relations that can be supplied only if you know some (possibly very complex) background story; I mention pumpkin bus and canoe wife in this connection. But there’s also a set of relations that recur again and again in patterns, and can be used in understanding novel compounds. (There will still be considerable potential ambiguity, though plausibility in context will help weed these out.)

N1 + champion ‘winner, victor‘. Using the sense ‘a person who has defeated or surpassed all rivals in a competition, especially in sports’ (NOAD2’s sense 1), as in chess champion, with a proper N1 like Fosdick — Fosdick champion —  there are a number of possible interpretations involving competitions: champion in a competition sponsored by Fosdick or named for Fosdick, champion in a competition on behalf of Fosdick, champion in a competition opposing Fosdick, champion in a competition in the game Fosdick (whatever that is), champion in a competition involving Fosdicks (whatever they are), etc.

These senses can be (close to) opposite. It all depends on the context. If we seek a victor over Fosdick in a competition, then we’re looking for a Fosdick champion. But if we seek a victor in a competition (say, a joust) on Fosdick’s behalf, then again we’re looking for a Fosdick champion.

Much the same is true for N1 + fighter. In this case, without some context, Fosdick fighter (especially in our (topFosdick fighter) can be pretty evenly balanced between ‘fighter against Fosdick’ and ‘fighter for Fosdick’.

N1 + champion ‘fighter’. All this grinds down when we look at the ‘fighter’ sense of champion. The problem is that the ‘fighter’ sense has been conventionalized as ‘fighter for’. NOAD2’s sense 2:

a person who fights or argues for a cause or on behalf of someone else

This semantic specialization is very hard to get around, though in principle the more general ‘fighter’ sense should always be available, given the right context. The best I can do is to use a possessive determiner, which provides an entry for the point of view of the speaker or writer: to return to something like the original example, our TPP champion can relativize champion to one political position or the other, in favor of trade agreements or against them.

Possibly the writer of the political ad had undone the semantic specialization in the second sense of champion and was treating it just like fighter (rather than like advocate). The usage is certainly non-standard, though.

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