Balls on the N + N compound watch

In today’s Dilbert, Catbert persecutes Dilbert (as Alice looks on):


N + N compounds are notorious for the wide range of interpretations available for them: what’s the semantic relationship between head N2 and modifier N1? As above, where the choice is between ‘ref(N2) relieves, reduces ref(N1)’ (the reading for a conventionalized compound stress ball and many others, like headache pill) and ‘ref(N2) causes ref(N1)’ (as in death ray) — where for an expression X, ref(X) is the referent of X.

Stress-relieving balls are a real thing. From Wikipedia:

(#2) A selection of foam-rubber stress relievers; I’ve had several of these — and still have a Linux penguin (because penguins)

A stress ball is a malleable toy, usually not more than 7 cm in diameter, which is squeezed in the hand and manipulated by the fingers, ostensibly to relieve stress and muscle tension or to exercise the muscles of the hand.

Despite the name, many stress balls are not spherical. Some are molded in amusing shapes, and pad- or transfer-printed with corporate logos. They are presented to employees and clients of companies as promotional gifts. … Because of the many non-spherical shapes now available, stress balls are generically known as stress relievers.

Many conventionalized compounds are subsective: ref(N2) is an N2 (a stress ball is a ball). And freshly created compounds usually are. So people tend to want subsectivity in their compounds; stress ball used to refer to an object with the form of a penguin, say, then strikes them as off, and they’ll welcome a freshly created compound that is subsective, like stress reliever.

But non-subsective compounds are really quite common, as I observe every so often on this blog. They’re usually resembloid: ref(N2) is like an N2 in some way. In the case of stress ball, the expression has been extended to refer to other objects of similar size and composition, also used to relieve stress or exercise the muscles of the hand. (For some time after the ulnar nerve damage affecting my right hand, I used egg-shaped stress balls for physical therapy.)

The subsective compound stress ball (with N1 stress ‘mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances’ (NOAD) and N2 ball ‘spherical object’) has other possible interpretations beyond the two above: for instance, a ball that is caused by, results from stress; a ball that symbolizes, represents stress. (Unlikely, yes, but possible.)

Bonus: ambiguities in stress and ball. On top of all that, there are further ambiguities in stress ball that arise from the lexical ambiguity of the N1 stress and the N2 ball, each of which can represent several different lexemes; ball is especially polysemous. Being the sort of person that I am, the first alternative interpretation that came to my mind for stress ball involved slang ball ‘testicle’: testicles that shrink up under stress (as they do in cold water or as a result of steroid use).

There’s an attested slang expression for testicles shrunken from steroid use: roid balls. With a Reddit discussion of the phenomenon under this name, complete with a stylized illustration of roid balls, “egg-sized before steroids, grape-sized during steroids”.

The shrinking of the testicles (and penis) in other circumstances is well-known. On the SteadyHealth site: “My Penis And Testicles Shrink To Almost Child Size Proportions While Exercising”, with this comment from a reader:

Your penis will actually shrink under various conditions – any form of exposure to cold, stress and exercise. It’s all to do with your body channeling blood to where it’s needed.

… A similar thing also happens to your scrotum, to protect your jewels. When it’s cold, the skin contracts to draw them closer to your body for heat, and the opposite when it’s hot. This ensures the optimal temperature is maintained, to improve sperm production. When you’re stressed or in a tense situation, your scrotum will also contract, to draw the jewels closer to your body as a form of protection against possible injury from the “potential” fight that may ensue.

Testicular shrinking in cold water is a well-known phenomenon, frequently remarked on by male surfers. The name cold-water balls would be appropriate, but it doesn’t seem to be attested.

As for testicular shrinking under stress, the name stress balls would be appropriate, but again it doesn’t seem to be attested. Pity.



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