V-headed compounds

I’ll start with the seasonally relevant compound verb to snow blow / snow-blow / snowblow and go on from there to an animus, in some quarters, against such V-headed compounds (on the grounds that they are unnecessary innovations, because the language already has syntactic means for expressing their meanings — in this case, to blow (the) snow away from).


For me, this story begins with this January 5th Facebook posting by mystery author Edith Maxwell:

Thank-you brownies for neighbor who snow blew half our driveway last night! That’s the spirit of #myAmesbury [Amesbury MA, on the Merrimac River near its mouth on the Atlantic; one of the northernmost towns in Massacusetts]

That led me to many occurrences of the BSE-form snow-blow (and its orthographic variants), as in #1 above. This compound verb has alternative PST forms: snow-blew (as in EM’s posting), which preserves the irregular PST blew of the head V lexeme;  and snow-blowed, which regularizes the PST form to blowed. A few more examples of the preserved PST:

We’re now at feet of snow at the house; we’re literally running out of room to which to snow blow the snow … I snow-blew the driveway for the fourth time in three days this morning. (link)

Got about 26-28 inches out there now and its still coming. Just snow blew the driveway and snow was deeper then the snowblower (link)

And a few examples of the regularized PST:

So we had a “snow” day today Dec 1 2008. The kids were off school and busses canceled in the outskirts of town. We woke up to a whack of snow and it’s still snowing now as of 11:10pm. snow blowed the driveway twice today and gave up. (link)

We got hit with a snow storm in the Youngstown area. I snow blowed the driveway last night or shall I say early this am (around midnight). My son woke me up this am (6:30) as he could not get his car out of driveway. I snow blowed the drive again. (link)

Now it becomes relevant that snow-blow is a 2pbfV (2-part back-formed V), derived by back-formation from the synthetic compound snow-blower. From NOAD:

noun snowblower: a machine that clears fallen snow by blowing it to the side

(#2) Snowblower in action

Compare the verbs substitute-teach (from substitute teacher) and showrun (from showrunner).

Though there is a well-known tendency for derived lexemes to regularize their inflectional morphology, 2pbfVs are strongly inclined to preserve it: consider, for instance, the PST forms substitute-taught (rather than substitute-teached) and showran (rather than showrunned). So Edith Maxwell’s snow-blew is what we expect, though regularized show-blowed is attested.

Next, a semantic/pragmatic point about snow-blow: to snow-blow some location (or an accumulation of snow) is not merely to blow snow away from some place, but to use a particular kind of machine, a snow blower (see #2), for this purpose: lung power, or a bellows, or a fan won’t do. Nor will it do to blow the snow up into the air in swirls, or down into a storm sewer, or behind the operator, or whatever. The AGT synthetic compound snow blower refers not just to someone or something that blows snow, but to a very specific kind of machine, and that specificity is inherited by the back-formed verb snow-blow.

The point is that the innovative 2pbfV to snow-blow is genuinely useful, because it’s (much) more informative than the V construction blow (the) snow away from.

The larger point is one I’ve made in several places, especially in the 2/15/10 posting “Brevity plus”:

The innovation and spread of lexical items very often is favored by considerations of brevity: items are invented by some people and adopted by others because they are more compact than earlier expressions. (And for some reasons not having to do with formal considerations: they have the virtue of novelty, suggesting fashion, ostentatious cleverness, or playfulness; and they usually have the virtue of contextual or social specificity, via ties to specific contexts, like sports, journalism, business, radio/television, the tech world, gaming, etc., or to specific social groups, like young people, Australians, women, etc.)

But these innovations also frequently (perhaps almost always) have the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity. The innovations usually allow for shadings of meaning that are fuzzed over in the older expressions (which, typically, have radiated and generalized in their meanings over the years). This point is scarcely a new one, but it tends to be buried by usage writers and language peevers who are hostile to innovations and treat them as “unnecessary”.

V-headed compounds. My interest here is in V-headed compound Vs in English: V = X + V, where X is other than V. Excluded are a small number of V + V compounds in English (like stirfry, kickstart, forcefeed) and an assortment of V1 – V2 sequences that involve a head V with a following VP complement (including those with Aux as V1: was singing (a song), has sung (for hours), was sung (by a chorus)).

As for the others, there are three types of V-headed compounds:

(1) verbing of a N + N compound or Adj + N composite, yielding a N/Adj + V compound

(2) synthetic compound of the PRP type: a N + Vprp compound usable in all functions of Vprp, including the clearly V functions, as in the progressive construction (We were bicycle-riding across Europe); at least initially, such V-headed compound Vs occur only in the PRP form

(3) 2pbfV: from a synthetic compound (of the PRP type; of the PSP type, as in chicken-fried (steak); or of the AGT type, as in snow-blower) or from a N1 + N2 compound where N2 is Vnom (as in course correction), in either case yielding a N + V compound with a full range of inflectional forms

And now to an odd phenomenon of ADS-L, where several regular posters note occurrences of V-headed compounds of all three types, usually with no commentary and often with minimal sourcing; the suggestion is that all such examples are worthy of note — perhaps freakish, perhaps lamentable, perhaps exemplifying human folly, or perhaps just something for the editors of the OED to consider (for the last, I would certainly recommend snow-blow above and course-correct below).

And now, some relatively recent examples, organized into the three types above, with discussion from me in some cases.


From Wilson Gray on 1/1/18, the posting:

Heard: “Should we drone-strike them?”

Comment: presumably a straightforward verbing of the N + N compound drone strike ‘(military) strike employing drones’.

The alternative to this V-headed compound would be (to) strike with drones, based on the

verb strike: carry out an aggressive or violent action, typically without warning (NOAD)

Howver, the N + N compound drone strike refers not merely to a military strike that happens to employ drones, but to one with drones as its central feature, and that specificity is inherited by the verbing (to) drone-strike — which is the more specific than the syntactic phrase (to) strike with drones. There’s nothing wrong with the syntactic phrase, but the compound is both shorter and more informative.

Then from Wilson Gray to ADS-L on 1/16/18, the header

“It’s always easy to Monday-morning-quarterback a situation”

Three cites from me, in the given longer expression it’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback a situation:

[commenter on responding to an active shooter] In the chaos of a life & death situation, I don’t think anyone’s going to make the right call 100% of the time…and it’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback a situation…especially if you can watch it unfold on video while sipping on a cup of coffee and so we want to train to both maximize our chances of physical survival (first) AND legal survival (second) without compromising on physical survival. (link)

[commenter on responding to an active shooter] It’s always easy to Monday-morning-quarterback a situation. I’m sure most folks have seen the clip of the assassination attempt that John Hinckley made on President Reagan. Secret service and other by-standers reacted instantly, but Hinckley was still able to get off six shots, wounding 3 people directly (link)

[commenter on 2017 Houston floods] I heard this on Fox news. I’m sure many people knew what was coming. You make a decision and deal with consequences. Honestly if I was in that situation I most likely wouldn’t have left. I don’t think anyone imagined how bad it actually turned out. It’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback a situation. (link)

(to) Monday-morning-quarterback / Monday morning quarterback ‘act like a Monday morning quarterback in dealing with (something)’ is a verbing of the [N + N] + N compound, itself a highly idiomatic metaphorical expression, interpretable only through knowledge of particular American cultural practices. Two entries on dictionary.com:

noun Monday morning quarterbackInformal. a person who criticizes the actions or decisions of others after the fact, using hindsight to assess situations and specify alternative solutions. (based on RHD)

A person who is good at predicting things that have already happened and at pointing out the errors of quarterbacks and other leaders; armchair general [1932+; fr the fact that Monday is the first weekday or business day after the weekend, when school and college football games are played] (from Kipfer & Chapman, The Dictionary of American Slang, 4th ed.)

You can Monday morning quarterback someone’s decision, Monday morning quarterback someone, etc. If you want a verb with the metaphorical oomph of the football metaphor, then the V-headed compound is obviously the way to go. Otherwise, you have to abandon that metaphor in favor of a blander idiom, like second-guess.

(2) Vprp synthetic compound. HORSEBACK-SEARCHING:

From Wilson Gray to ADS-L on 12/31/17, under the header “Texas sheriff speaks”:

“We had people horseback-searching.”

In context, searching for the (body of the) missing boyfriend by randomly riding in and about the county on horseback, looking “hither, thither, and yon” – as my mother used to say.

Well, ‘searching on horseback (for s.th.)’.

Here, it seems to me that the choice between searching on horseback and horseback-searching is a close one. The V-headed compound is a bit shorter and might suggest that the searchers were employing a customary routine for searching on horseback — so if that’s the nuance you want, the V-headed compound would be a good choice.

(But I see no reason to object to synthetic compounds in general.)

(3) 2 pbfV. TREASURE-HUNT and COURSE-CORRECT. Jon Lighter to ADS-L on 10/30/17, with this example:

2012 Jim Craddock, ed. VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever 2013 (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale) 66: All the Brothers Were Valiant … Brothers Taylor and Granger are New England whaling captains but Granger decides to treasure hunt instead.

That’s treasure hunt ‘hunt for treasure’, backformed from the synthetic compounds treasure-hunting and/or treasure-hunter. The synthetic compounds refer not merely to hunting for treasure, but to doing so specifically as an organized activity, either as a hobby for pleasure or an occupation for money, and that component of meaning carries over to the 2pbfV.

Then course-correct. From John Lighter to ADS-L on 1 2/31/17, quoting

Newt Gingrich: “By June, it may be too late to course-correct.”

Presumably from the nominal course-correction by back-formation.

This is at least Lighter’s second time around on this one. #87 in my files on (selected) 2pbfVs, citing JL to ADS-L on 10/3/11, with a tv exchange:

CNN: “How does Rick Perry course-correct?”
Talking Head: “I’m not sure that he *can* course-correct.”

The choice is between the syntactic idiom correct (one’s) course and the compound course-correct. Both are amply attested (see some examples of the compound below), so that course-correct should probably go into the OED. But from looking at examples on the web, it seems that the compound is almost always used metaphorically, for correcting one’s course in life, for example, while correct (one’s) course is used literally — for correcting a course in navigation or aviation — as well as metaphorically. As usual, the compound shows a tighter semantic bond between its parts than the syntactic phrase.

More from ADS-L on the compound. Dan Goncharoff on 1/1/18 noted that Google Books has it back to 1979:

As Carter Hawley Hale’s Philip Hawley observed recently, in describing his own company’s $600 million slated for expansion over the next five years, Retailing’s ability to course-correct is high. (link)


To which I can add, from my own reading at the time, a 1/15/18 letter to the NYT, from Lisa M. Shulman, Baltimore:

Re “Trump’s Petticoat Government,” by Ross Douthat (column, Jan. 7): Many lament the coarsening of the presidency under this administration, but Donald Trump’s greatest legacy may be showing that our Republic is not only strong enough to endure but also to course-correct.


One Response to “V-headed compounds”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    we’re literally running out of room to which to snow blow the snow

    This one bothered me. I sort of understand why simple “blow the snow” isn’t quite the same, because it doesn’t require the use of a snow-blower, but the two “snow”s feel redundant.

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