shaker of salt

Today’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro collabo:

(#1) A parade of unidiomatic prepositional alternatives (with the P of) to the synthetic compounds cheese grater, nutcracker, meat cleaver, egg timer

(Wayno’s title: “Rhyme & Punishment”; see comments below)

To understand the relevance of these nominals, you need to know not only who Jimmy Buffett is and that his most famous song is the notoriously ohrwurmisch “Margaritaville”, you actually need to know a crucial couplet from the song:

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin’ for my long lost shaker of salt

featuring the nominal shaker of salt — a notably unidiomatic alternative to salt shaker ‘a perforated container for sprinkling salt’ (NOAD), though it’s an entirely acceptable alternative to the Source compound salt shaker ‘a shaker made of/from salt’.

(Of course, you also need to know that margaritas come with salt around the rim of the glass.)

Before I get into the (moderately heavy) linguistics, a note on why Buffett probably went for shaker of salt rather than salt shaker: first, to fit the prosody of the song; but more important, to end the line with a word that will rhyme with fault, in the thrice-repeated chorus that begins with the couplet above and then continues with:

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
[1st time] But I know it’s nobody’s fault
[2nd time] Now I think hell it could be my fault
[3rd time] But I know it’s my own damn fault

Buffett singing the song in 1978:


Synthetic compounds. The compound nouns cheese grater, nutcracker, meat cleaver, egg timer, and, yes, salt shaker all look like straightforward  N + N compounds, in which N2 just happens to be of the form V + agentive –er. But they are in fact what are called synthetic compounds, in which the syntactic combination of a V with a N related to it as a non-subject argument is reproduced as a compound word N + Vx — where, most commonly, Vx is the PRP form (in –ing) of the V (as in bicycle-riding); or the agentive, or AGT, derivative (in -er) of the V (as in bicycle-rider).

So cheese grater is the complex verbal grate cheese converted to a compound AGT noun by making the AGT variant of the V the head N in the compound: the agentive variant of V + N is realized as N + the agentive variant of V. (Similarly for the others, including salt shaker.) Syntax is compacted into morphology.

But in general the syntactic expression of a semantic relationship and the corresponding morphological expression are not semantically or pragmatically equivalent: the compound cheese grater isn’t equivalent to the fully clausal expression of this content in someone/something that grates cheese or to its more compact PP expression in something for grating cheese or in grater of cheese, though they are all roughly similar in meaning. The clausal variant is the most unconstrained in its semantics, while the others bring with them implications, implicatures, presuppositions, or connotations that constrain the interpretations of these expressions. Roughly, the more compact in form the combination is, the tighter the real-world association between V and N is, and consequently the more specialized in meaning the combination is.

It then follows that the synthetic compounds, which are about as compact as you can get, tend to be conventionally used for very specific sorts of referents: a cheese grater could be anything that grates cheese (She used a carpenter’s plane as a cheese grater), but conventionally it refers to a very specific sort of object, and the degree of specialization is even greater for salt shaker — which is (among other things) a piece of tableware (so, part of the system of practices, within certain cultures, for dining), in a particular size range, used for containing salt grains and fitted with perforations that allow a human user to shake the salt grains onto food; the device isn’t self-running, it isn’t used for dispensing salt in a factory operation, it doesn’t dispense rock salt, it’s different from a salt cellar or a salt mill (though both of those are used to dispense salt at table), and so on.

The point is that salt shaker refers to an incredibly specific kind of thing for shaking salt, so that if you use shaker of salt (a PP alternative expressing the Patient/Object relationship between shake(r) and salt) instead, you implicate that the conventional compound is  inapplicable for some reason. But Buffett singing about Margaritaville intends to refer to the common item of culture, so calling it a shaker of salt is just weird.

Now the earworm, that I can’t help you with.

5 Responses to “shaker of salt”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’m very glad you posted about this; that strip was entirely opaque to our Jimmy-Buffett-ignorant household.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Peculiarly, the sheet music has the words “jigger and salt” and many people hear the words as “shaker and salt”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “Jigger (of tequila?) and salt”, or even “jigger of salt” would make sense and would be idiomatic English as well, but I can’t see how anyone could get “jigger” out of what Buffett sings. Maybe it’s just creative mishearing (like “shaker and salt”).

      • Stewart Kramer Says:

        A salt shaker is awkward for salting the rim of a glass, which is usually moistened with a slice of lime and dipped in a shallow dish of salt. The lost shaker could be a cocktail shaker, but the lyrics specifically mention a blender, and a frozen concoction. I’m not sure the song holds up to careful analysis.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        “I’m not sure the song holds up to careful analysis.” — regrettably, this seems to be so. But you win some sort of award for generous understatement.

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