The compounds of commerce and the comics

A little study in N + N compounds in English, their great utility and versatility (they pack a lot of content into two-word expressions), and their consequent massive potential ambiguity (so that divining the intended meaning can require vast amounts of background knowledge and appreciating details of the context in which the compound is used). You can have (great) brevity, or you can have (great) clarity, but you can’t have both at once.

From the world of commerce, the compound dog spot (which many of us will not have encountered before, or will take to be a reference to the coat pattern of Dalmatian dogs). From the comic strips, two compounds that have conventional interpretations but can also be understood in fresh and unconventional ways: from One Big Happy, dancing school; from Bizarro, cowboy.

dog spot. Google on “dog spot”, and you get, at least at the top of the response, a lot of pictures of spotted dogs, and not just any spotted dog — all kinds of dogs have spotted coats, my childhood part-terrier mutt Spot / Spotty, for one — but the modern canonical spotted dog, the Dalmatian. As here:

(#1) A Dalmatian firedog, on duty

This is dog spot ’roundish mark on a dog’, a subsective compound with N2 head spot (‘a small round or roundish mark, differing in color or texture from the surface around it’ (NOAD‘s sense 1)) and the referent of the N1 modifier dog related as Location to the referent of the N2 head — making the compound a Type O (for ordinary) compound, with a N1-N2 semantic relationship (Location) from a canonical set.

But this is not the compound dog spot I encountered in a tv commercial recently, which proclaimed that the advertised product was

Great for dry spots, dog spots, high traffic areas and shade!

with an illustration of the sort of dog spot in question:

(#2) A dog spot; cf. a dry spot

Also subsective, with N2 head spot (‘a particular place or point’ (NOAD‘s sense 2)), but very much a Type X (for extraordinary or exceptional) compound, with the referent of N1 distantly related to the referent of N2 — you just have to know the story connecting N1 to N2 in this particular example. It helps if you know that such a dog spot is also known as a dog urine / pee spot, or more fully as a dog urine lawn spot, roughly ‘a bare spot in lawn grass caused by a dog urinating there’.

This compound dog spot came to me in a commercial for Hydro Mousse™ Liquid Lawn™, a spray-on grass seed product:

(#3) Note the dog spots on the label (it’s called a mousse because it’s foamy (French mousse ‘froth’))

From the company’s website:

Quick and easy — the grass grows where you spray it! Attaches to any garden hose

The green mousse formula contains an eco-friendly solution that attaches the seed to the soil and reduces the seeds water surface tension allowing it to absorb more water, resulting in a terrific looking lawn! [It also includes a packet of green dye, to make the treated area look better.]

Great for dry spots, dog spots, high traffic areas and shade!

(The company advertises relentlessly. Local tv stations that check out claims made in commercials seem to uniformly find the product worthless.)

Meanwhile, of course, there are many possible understandings of dog spot beyond these two: a spot (in either of the two NOAD senses) shaped like a dog; a spot (sense 2) where dogs gather or are housed (‘a place for dogs’); a spot (sense 1) composed of, ugh, dog stuff; and so on.

dancing school. The One Big Happy strip of 5/5/10, which came by me in a re-issue back in April:

(#4) dancing school: like acting class ‘class for teaching acting’ (Ruthie) or like jumping frog ‘frog that jumps, frog given to jumping’ (James)?

Writing about N + N compounds in which N1 is a nominal gerund (a use of the Vprp verb form) immediately afflicts me with a terrible ABBA “Dancing Queen” earworm, which I will now share with you (in part because it’s the best ABBA hit ever, in part because the title leads to more understandings of NomGer + queen compounds).

From Wikipedia:

“Dancing Queen” is a Europop song by the Swedish group ABBA, released [in 1976] as the lead single from their fourth studio album, Arrival.

You can view a 1976 tv performance of the song here.

The title compound is similar to James’s understanding of dancing school, like jumping frog ‘frog that jumps, frog given to jumping’; in the song, the woman is a metaphorical queen (paired with her king) who dances, likes to dance, is inclined to dance.

For dancing queen out of context, the head N2 queen can be understood in a variety of ways — for instance, as ‘the most outstanding woman in some sphere or group’ (‘queen of dancing, most accomplished dancer’) or as ‘an ostentatiously effeminate gay man’ (‘femmy gay guy who dances’) or as the second element in a snowclonelet composite (either of the enthusiasm variety, ‘enthusiast of dancing’, or of the sexual-preference variety, ‘gay man who seeks dancers as sexual partners’). Just a sampling, and just from Type O compounds. If we get into Type X compounds, then there’s no end; dancing queen could refer to some femmy gay guy you first met outside of a dance studio. (This is the lesson of pumpkin bus and canoe wife.)

cowboy. The Piraro Sunday Bizarro from 4/17/22:

(#5) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5  in this strip — see this Page)

In his ruminant fashion, Bovo understands cowboy as ‘boy of a cow’ , that is, ‘male offspring of a cow’, in one or the other senses of modern English cow denoting a domestic bovine: either (wide sense) in general or (narrow sense) an adult female. (Our everyday vocabulary in this animal semantic domain is something of a mess, but we muddle through, sort of.) So Bovo thinks cowboy should be a subsective N + N compound, indeed of Type O (with the N1-N2 semantic relationship being Kinship).

It follows that for Bovo, since his son is the boy ‘male offspring’ of a cow (wide sense ‘a domestic bovine’) — thus, a cowboy —  and the cowpunch(er) is the boy ‘male offspring’ of a man (wide sense ‘a human (being)’), the cowpunch must be a manboy. I mean, that just stands to reason.

But in actual — not Bovo — English, cowboy is a highly conventionalized N + N compound, maybe subsective (see below), but looking pretty significantly Type X, involving an idiosyncratic N1-N2 semantic relationship.

The short version of the story of the noun cowboy, from NOAD:

a man, typically one on horseback, who herds and tends cattle, especially in the western US and as represented in westerns and novels

Dictionary definitions of Type X compounds tend to devolve like this into story-telling and the unspooling of encyclopedic information.

A longer version from OED3 (March 2022), in an entry that then actually provides a further paragraph of cultural history (not included here):

I. A man or boy who looks after cows. … 2. spec. … b. Esp. in the western United States: a man or boy who herds cattle on an open range or (later) a ranch, usually working on horseback. Later also: a character type in the genre of the Western … and more widely in popular culture, based (often somewhat loosely) on such herdsmen and ranchers and typically characterized as a skilled horseman and gunfighter. [1st cite: 1849 J. S. Jenkins Hist. War U.S. & Mexico i. 52 The Mexican rancheros .. ventured across the Rio Grande .. but they were immediately attacked by the Texan ‘cow-boys’.]

The head noun boy. In addition to the ‘male child’ (identified by sex and age) and ‘son’ (identified by sex and kin relationship) senses, there are two other uses of possible relevance here, the second surely to the point:

— from NOAD, ‘used informally or lightheartedly to refer to a man: the inspector was a local boy‘. This usage includes the plural boys referring lightheartedly to a set of bros, buddies, or guy guys, as in: a weekend fishing with the boys, boys’ night out, the boys down at the pool hall, and “see what the boys in the back room will have”(Wikipedia: “The Boys in the Back Room” is a song written by Frank Loesser, set to music by Frederick Hollaender and performed by Marlene Dietrich in the film Destry Rides Again (1939).).

— in certain now-fixed expressions used without regard to age, ‘a male who does a specified job’. Most such job titles distinguish the holders by age — delivery boy vs. delivery man — but a few do not: copy boy, for one. There’s no copy man; if you run copy around the newsroom and composing room, you’re a copy boy, no matter what your age, and in fact I once worked on the Reading (PA) Eagle with a copy boy who was a bit older than my father.

And cowboy for another (cowman usually refers to a rancher). An old grizzled cowpunch(er) is unhesitatingly labeled a cowboy; hey, that guy on horseback in #5 is no kid.

Like copy boys, cowboys historically tended to be mostly boys or young men: it’s hard physical work, low in status, and poorly paid. So the boy of cowboy is no great surprise, though I hadn’t realized it had become fixed so early in its history.


2 Responses to “The compounds of commerce and the comics”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    It seems to me that the stress patterns for the two meanings of dancing school are different; Ruthie would surely have put primary emphasis on the first syllable of dance, whereas if she had meant “a school that dances” she would have put more or less equal emphasis on danc(e) and school. To me, this makes James’s misunderstanding clever on the page but rather unlikely in the context of actual speech.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Vprp has a large variety of uses, including the nominal gerund and as modifying adjectival, and these are in principle associated with different stress patterns. So: ‘school for (teaching) dancing’ is NomGer + N and would have the (default) stress pattern for a compound, on the first element; while ‘school that dances’ is Adj + N and would have the (default) stress pattern for modifier plus head, on the second element.

      But actual pronunciations quite frequently deviate from these, in particular for Vprp as adjectival modifier. When the head N is merely a type name (like school), and so relatively uninformative, there’s a strong tendency to move the accent to the more informative Adj. Thus giving the same accent pattern to NomGer + N and Adj + N.

      That is, though you *can* distinguish the two syntactically different combinations dancing school accentually, people very often don’t, and there’s a reason for that.

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