bricks ˈnˈ mortar

Roz Chast in the September 2nd New Yorker:


An exercise in the semantics of N + N compounds, exploiting an ambiguity that might not have occurred to you:

in the semantics of the modifying N, N1 (here, the coordinate N bricks and mortar);

in the semantics of the head N, N2 (here, the understood N store);

and in the semantics of the relation between N2 and N1  (here, ‘N2 for N1, (specifically) N2 selling N1’, in this case ‘store selling bricks and mortar — rather than the ‘N2 (made) of/from N1’ relation in the familiar conventionalized compound brick(s) and mortar store ‘store (made) of/from bricks and mortar’.

The ambiguity in the N2-N1 relation can be seen clearly in a novel compound like glass store, which can refer (among other things) to a store that sells glass (parallel to the interpretation in Chast’s cartoon) or to a store that is made of or from glass, in particular  by having glass walls (parallel to the conventional interpretation of brick(s) and mortar store).

A glass store in the first sense: this famous one in Rome:

(#1) The Murano store in Rome, selling a huge range of glass things

And a spectacular glass store in the second sense: the Apple store in Hangzhou, China:


From the Wired magazine story “Apple’s newest store boasts 50-foot glass walls and a free-floating second floor” by Margaret Rhodes on 2/19/15:

At first blush, Foster + Partners’ new Apple store in Hangzhou, China, looks a lot like its others. The British architecture firm headed by Norman Foster started designing for Apple in 2009, when Steve Jobs tapped them to design the new Cupertino headquarters. That massive, circular building aside, in the year or so since, Foster’s buildings have all been some sort of spin on the enormous glass box. The style makes perfect sense for Apple: It’s suggestive of the products sold within, and is sleek and consistent with Apple’s product packaging—which is just as key to the company’s design ethos as anything else it does.

If the new Hangzhou store is any indication, Foster + Partners are looking for ways to make its already pared down Apple stores even more minimalist. But in doing so, they’re pushing the limits of what can be done with modern structural engineering. Take a closer look: The Hangzhou store’s ceilings are almost 50 feet high, with no columns to be found. The façade of glass panels reaches from floor to ceiling without interruption, meaning Foster + Partners had to push well beyond their previous feats in glass manufacturing to get 11 seamless panes. (By contrast, the glass cube that leads to Apple’s heavily trafficked subterranean Fifth Avenue store in New York is 32 feet tall, and the curved glass entrance to the store’s Shanghai store is 40 feet in height. The Cupertino campus itself will use enormous glass panels that are curved.)

So: a use or purpose compound in Chast’s bricks and mortar (store); the Murano glass store in Rome; and the compound beauty facial in my 6/18/19 posting “The clown facial”.

But: a source or ingredient compound in the conventional brick and mortar store (vs. online store); the Apple glass store in Hangzhou; and the compound cum facial in my clown facial posting.

A note on accent. There’s a subtle accentual difference between use/purpose compounds and source/ingredient compounds. Put contrastive accent aside in what follows.

Then, use/purpose compounds all have the default accent pattern for compounds, forestress (primary accent on N1): a Chastian BRICKS and MORTAR store, the GLASS store in Rome, a BEAUTY facial.

But things are more complex for source/ingredient compounds. The subtype of material compounds (in which, speaking loosely, N2 is composed entirely of the material N1) all have afterstress (primary accent on N2): silver BOX, wood CHEST, bead CURTAIN, etc.

However, from my old forestress/afterstress paper:


The source/ingredient compounds we’ve been looking at are of this accentually variable sort; the conventional (not online) store can be pronounced either with forestress (BRICK and MORTAR store) — in which case it’s homophonous with the use/purpose compound — or with afterstress (brick and mortar STORE), when it’s unambiguously source/ingredient.

The two nouns separately. Neither bricks and mortar nor store is understood literally; both are figurative.

Both are conventional figures, used in other collocations, rather than creative figures, one-offs. On this distinction, see my 7/24/19 posting “Conventional and creative metaphors”, about a One Big Happy cartoon:


In panel 2, the baggage of emotional baggage is a conventional metaphor, one no longer requiring the hearer to work out the effect of the figure and so now listed in dictionaries. But then Rose immediately brings it back from dormancy to life in a long riff of creative metaphor (in panels 2-4), composed on the spot and calling up a complex and vivid scene for the hearer.

We use the same term, metaphor, for both phenomena, and the mechanism is the same in both — but one is a historical phenomenon (whose figural character is usually out of the consciousness of speaker and hearer), while the other is a phenomenon of discourse production and comprehension in real time.

The head N2, store, is a conventional metaphor; the modifier N1, brick and mortar, a conventional metonymy.

The head N2 store. The question is whether brick and mortar store as a whole is a resembloid, rather than subsective, compound, with store taken as metaphorical just in this combination; or whether there is now a conventionally metaphorical item store alongside literal store. Can people now say that they’ll just log in and find something they want to buy at their favorite store, meaning their favorite online shopping site?

I suspect that the answer is that some people find this usage entirely natural — for them, there’s a specialized  item store referring to online shopping sites, as well as an item store referring to physical shopping facilities. But there are other people people who don’t find this usage natural at all — I am one — and would have to understand such a usage as a creative metaphor.

In fact, there probably are people who have semantically generalized the physical-facility item to cover all sorts of sales locations. One understanding of the relevant NOAD entry is that it’s for this generalized item:

noun store: 1 chiefly North American a retail establishment selling items to the public: a health-food store

It all turns on what’s meant by establishment here.

The larger point is that it’s possible, even likely, that different people organize this conceptual space somewhat differently. But teasing these differences apart might be difficult in practice. And for many purposes we wouldn’t need to: all of these lexical organizations would be compatible with the store of app store ‘store for apps’, web store ‘store on the web’ (vs., say, mall store), and more.

The modifier N1 brick and mortar. In a literal usage, the coordinate N refers to these materials taken together, then metonymically to a building with a structure made from these materials, then metonymically to such a building viewed as the location of some organization or institution.

Here’s a piece of the Wikipedia entry, devoted to explicating the opposition between brick and mortar and online, while cagily avoiding giving anything like definitions:

Brick and mortar (also bricks and mortar or B&M) refers to a physical presence of an organization or business in a building or other structure. The term brick-and-mortar business is often used to refer to a company that possesses or leases retail shops, factory production facilities, or warehouses for its operations. More specifically, in the jargon of e-commerce businesses in the 2000s, brick-and-mortar businesses are companies that have a physical presence (e.g., a retail shop in a building) and offer face-to-face customer experiences.

This term is usually used to contrast with a transitory business or an Internet-only presence, such as fully online shops, which have no physical presence for shoppers to visit, talk with staff in person, touch and handle products and buy from the firm in person. However, such online businesses normally have non-public physical facilities from which they either run business operations (e.g., the company headquarters and back office facilities), and/or warehouses for storing and distributing products. Concerns such as foot traffic, shopfront visibility, and appealing interior design apply to brick-and-mortar businesses rather than online ones. An online-only business needs to have an attractive, well-designed website, a reliable e-commerce system for payment, a good delivery or shipping service and effective online marketing tactics to drive web traffic to the site.

The coordinate N brick(s) and mortar occurs as the modifier N1 in many N + N compounds — with N2 heads like business, company, commerce, establishment, (retail) store / shop; and also with some more abstract heads, for instance, (retail) presence and approach. One complexity here is that this N1 mostly occurs only as N1 in such compounds. Though this expression is clearly nominal in form, it would appear to be adjectival in function (parallel to the adjectival online), and some of its other occurrences look adjectival, for instance:

Our store is brick and mortar, well lit, organized, and very spacious! (Facebook page for B&B Quality Furnture, Jefferson City MO)

Added ZiP EcoRide in Kitchener. EMMO product mostly, looks like they went “bricks and mortar” on June 14.  (Toronto Electric Riders Association site: a member adds an Ontario electric bike dealer to the site’s list)

But then there are occurrences in straightforwardly nominal functions, in particular as object of preposition and as subject:

Alibaba places big bet on bricks and mortar … China’s internet titan has made a big bet that bricks and mortar is the future. (Financial Times story)

The referent of this expression is not, however, bricks and mortar (in any of the senses above), but some more abstract referent involving bricks and mortar (one selecting a singular agreeing verb form).

This only scratches the surface of phenomena I don’t yet understand. But then nothing about brick(s) and mortar stores is easy.

One Response to “bricks ˈnˈ mortar”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Mike Pope on Facebook 9/1:

    Where does your personal understanding-space go for “shopping cart”? That one (I think) is not normally qualified (e.g. *online shopping cart) and would be contextual.

    My reply:

    So in this context “shop” referring to an online store has been normalized for everyone.

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