Snow tires

A classic Don Martin Mad magazine cartoon for the winter season, illustrating the utility and flexibility of N + N compounds in English — and also their enormous potential for ambiguity, which has to be resolved in context:


Four examples of N1 + N2 compounds in English, all four highly conventionalized  to very culture-specific referents. In these conventionalized uses, two (snow tire, snowshoe) are use compounds (‘N2 for use in some activity involving N1’), two (snowman, snowball) are source compounds (‘N2 made from N1’). But N + N combinations are potentially ambiguous in  multiple ways; this lack of clarity is the price you pay for the great brevity of these combinations (which lack any indications of the semantic relationship between the two elements).

So: we get snow tire and snowshoe understood as source compounds in #1: ‘(simulacrum of a) tire made of snow’, ‘(simulacrum of a) shoe made of snow’.

I’ll turn to the four snow + N2 compounds in #1 in just a moment, but this presentation is now interrupted by breaking news from the snow-cartoon world, a wonderful wordless cartoon by snowman maven Bob Eckstein in the 1/30/23 issue of the New Yorker, which has in fact not yet arrived in my mailbox.

The heedless snowman. Bob is not only  an actual authority on the history and cultural roles of the snowman, but is also a devoted creator of snowman cartoons. This is his latest, and it’s firmly grounded in current American culture:

(#2) The magazine’s description: A snowman texting while crossing the street and about to be scooped up by a plow

Now back to our previously scheduled program.

The four conventionalized compounds in #1.

— ‘N2 for use in snow’ (use compounds).

:: compound noun snow tire: a tire with a tread which gives extra traction on snow or ice. (NOAD)

From the Tire Rack site:

(#3) A trio of snow tires

:: compound noun snowshoe: a flat device resembling a racket, which is attached to the sole of a boot and used for walking on snow. (NOAD)

From the Northern Toboggan Co. site:

(#4) Traditional Alaskan wooden snowshoes

— vs. ‘(simulacrum of) N2 made of snow’ (source compounds)

:: compound noun snowman: a representation of a human figure created with compressed snow. (NOAD)

The canonical modern snowman (versions of which appear in #1 and #2) is much more specific than this: three balls of snow (lower body, torso, head), sticks for arms, carrot for nose, and a smiley face made of stones (or, traditionally, lumps of coal).

:: compound noun snowball: 1 [a] a ball of packed snow, especially one made for throwing at other people for fun: they pelted him with snowballs. … (NOAD)

Fresh source compounds snow tire and snowshoe (as in #1) can be created as needed, of course. And so can fresh use compounds snowman ‘man for making snow’ and snowball ‘ball that detects snow’ (to choose just two possible use senses from among many).

On use and source compounds. Many, many examples of contrasts between the two. Some discussion from my 6/18/19 posting “The clown facial”:


spaghetti sauce (a Use compound), which can be (made) from clams or tomatoes

vs. clam / tomato sauce (Source compounds), which can be used for/on spaghetti

Then, from this blog, two postings (from a fair number on interpreting compounds):

— from my 10/20/17 posting “A processed food flavor”:

Source compounds vs. Use compounds. Some would object to the compound pumpkin spice because it’s not a Source compound: pumpkin spice isn’t made from or with pumpkin(s); there’s no pumpkin in it at all. In fact, it’s a Use compound (very crudely, it’s (a) spice for pumpkins), and both Source and Use compounds are widely attested, with many entertaining contrasts; from earlier postings on this blog:

Source mink oil vs. Use saddle oil; Source cucumber soap vs. Use saddle soap; Source lobster salad vs. Use fish sauce and lobster sauce

(All of these compounds are in fact potentially ambiguous between Source and Use, though only one interpretation has been conventionalized, usually for good reason.

Nevertheless, mink oil could be (an) oil to use on minks (to make them slipperier) as well as (an) oil made from minks, and saddle oil could be (an) oil made from saddles as well as (an) oil to use on saddles (to preserve them and make them more pliable); lobster salad could be (a) salad to use for lobsters (by feeding it to them) as well as (a) salad made from lobster(s), and lobster sauce could be (a) sauce made from lobster(s) as well as (a) sauce to use on (cooked) lobsters.)

— from my 2/4/19 posting “Cowboy casserole”, on:

the N + N compound cowboy casserole. Clearly not an Ingredient compound (‘casserole made from cowboys’ [ugh]), but instead a Use compound, roughly ‘casserole for cowboys (to use)’, or — most likely — an Object compound, roughly ‘casserole of the sort that cowboys (like to) eat’.


One Response to “Snow tires”

  1. Aric Olnes Says:

    Your post left me snowblind and thinking of Sierra legendary Snowshoe Thompson. There’s a statue of him in the plaza at Kirkwood ski resort.

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