All creativity, including linguistic creativity, is about novel combinations – that is, the marriage of old concepts to form new ones.
Linguistically, this can mean combining any part of speech with another. But while poets and writers might get carried away with fancy combinations of verbs and adverbs, I would argue there’s as much to be said for combining the simplest part of speech: the humble noun.
Compound nouns are formed by combining any number of nouns together to make a new one. They are quite commonplace. English, for example, has “hair-brush”, “moonlight”, “dog-house” and “Facebook”, just to name a few. Of course, compound nouns can be pretty mundane. But what would a holiday be without “sun-cream”, sun-screen”, “sunglasses”, “sun-block”, a “sun-bed” or a “sun-hat”? And what would dinner be without “rice crackers”, “jam donuts”, “potato chips”, “bread pudding”, or a “jellyspoon” to serve your preserve with?
New words, new concepts
Most importantly, such compounds are the source of endless creativity. Say you take any common noun, signifying some concept like “cat”. Then you take another noun, signifying some seemingly unrelated concept, like “fish”. When you put the two nouns together, to create a compound noun, you can’t help but create a new concept by fusing the two old ones together: “cat fish”.
Such compounding in a ripe source of neologisms, particularly to describe new concepts in socio-cultural and political thought. The last decade, for example, has brought us “black swan theory”, “kitchen-table politics”, “prawn-sandwich man” and “choice fatigue”, among many other such compounds. It’s also a lively process in pop culture too, as seen in words like “flash mob”. Not unsurprisingly, quite a few compound nouns have appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year list. Noun combinations include “toy-boy” (WOTY in 1981), “beatbox” (1983), “kitten heels” (1995) and “text message” (1998).
Compounding is also a rich mechanism in poetry. One of the masters of the art of combining nouns was the English poet DH Lawrence. Flick through his collected works, particular his later poems, and you’ll find all manner of hyphenated compounds. I particular like this evocative passage from his 1923 poem, Almond Blossom:
Sweating his drops of blood through the long-nighted Gethsemane
Into blossom, into pride, into honey-triumph, into most exquisite splendour.
“Globe-flower”, “fire-mist”, “mother-love”, “lady-smock”, “moon-tide”, “sun-starer”, “sage-ash desert”, “dawn-heart”, and “wound-stump”, for example, are also all his.
But compounding nouns is not just for writers and media professionals – it’s for everyone.
Here’s a game to try: Take a dictionary, open it at any page quite at random, and write down the first noun you come to reading down from the first entry. Then, open another page, again at random, and write down the first noun you come to directly after it. Now look at the two words side by side. Bizarre as the combination might seem at first, I’m pretty confident your brain, by appropriately re-wiring your semantic system to link the two concepts, will find some way of making sense out of it.
Here’s a few random examples I came up with using exactly this method:
Material forest (a place where various materials can be harvested)
Slope alloy (a type of metal used primarily for inclined surfaces)
Sycamore flour (a low-gluten wheat substitute)
Runt cricket (a game played by the smallest cub in every litter)
Toddler necessity (the need for small children in times of crisis?…)
They’re certainly bizarre, and you may not agree with my attempted explanations for them. But somehow, thanks to our creativity, such combinations are not entirely implausible – at least in our imagination.
Compounds in other languages
Although the Romance languages, like French, tend to avoid them (think “sac à dos”, “salle d’attente” or “pain au chocolat”), compound nouns are certainly not limited to English. Chinese, with its limited inflection, loves to throw whole nouns together to make new ones; the Chinese word for “food”, for example, is “fancai” (literally “rice vegetable”). And even ancient languages had compounds. Sanskrit grammarians had a special word, “dvandva”, for compound nouns where both components referred to the same person (such as “boy-king”, “singer-songwriter” and “girlfriend”).
But German, as everyone knows, is the master of the art of combining nouns. Take a look through any German-English dictionary and you’ll see countless examples of compounds – noun after noun breathlessly strung together without space or hyphen. How about “Fussballspiel” (football match), “Fahrkartenautomat” (train ticket machine) or “Waschmaschine” (washing machine)? Or, how about this particular favourite from my school days?: “Brustwarze”, which means “nipple”, can be literally – and somewhat unromantically – translated as “breast wart”.
The German language’s propensity to shove nouns together to form new ones is a source of great enjoyment for language lovers. In an episode of the US Comedy Series How I Met Your Mother a German character called Klaus has just run away from his own wedding. When he bumps into Ted, the show’s hapless protagonist, he decides to give him a Teutonic lesson in love. Klaus tells him:
“There is a word in German, Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. The closest translation would be ‘lifelong treasure of destiny’. And Victoria is wunderbar, but she is not my Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. She is my Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand, you know?”
Ted, understandably looks confused. Klaus is vexed:
“You know wunderbar but you don’t know Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand?! That is something we learn in Kindergarten. I’m sorry, “Kindergarten” is the German word for…”
Both “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz” and “Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand” are made up, of course. “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz”, for example, is built from the words for “lebenslang” (lifelong), “Schicksal” (destiny) and “Schatz” (treasure). But people with only a modest knowledge of German would get the joke.
The perils of writing them down
But English speakers shouldn’t be so quick to mock. Because, like all the Germanic languages, English is also full of compound nouns – and we have some pretty long ones too. How about “pension fund capitalism”, “container ship”, “ink jet printer cartridge”, “African American” or “sodium potassium nitrate salt”?
The real difference, of course, is how we write them down. Whereas in German it’s consistently alphabet soup all the way, the English convention is that – well – there’s not really a convention at all.
Eric Partridge in his 1947 classic Usage and Abusage (Partridge, 1973), isn’t particularly helpful. Under “Hyphenation”, he writes: “In the life of compound words there are three stages: (1) two separate words (cat bird); (2) a hyphenated compound (cat-bird); (3) a single word (catbird).” And that’s pretty much it. The transition from an orthographic rendition as two words, through a hyphenated middle stage, to a rendition as a single word is to do with how frequent, or well entrenched in the language, the compound noun is perceived to be. That is, somebody somewhere is going to have to make a (fairly) arbitrary judgement either way – just like I have in quite a few places above.
Most importantly, the fact that we write “football match” and not “footballmatch” (like the German “Fussballspiel”) makes no difference to the way the compound noun functions in a sentence. As linguist Steven Pinker writes, about compounds in general (Pinker, 1999, p. 181):
“Do not be distracted by the inconsistent way compounds are spelled in English: sometimes as one word, as in ‘teethmarks’; sometimes with a hyphen as in ‘mice-infested’; sometimes as two words as in ‘geese crossing’. The way to recognise a compound is by its composition, such as being two nouns in a row, and by its stress pattern.”
In compounds of all kinds, when spoken, the stress tends to fall on the first part of a compound noun (we say “workmen” rather than “workmen”). And, however they are written, compound nouns will function, more-or-less, like simple nouns. For example, in the plural form, only the rightmost noun (the head of the compound noun) will get the plural ending added: we have “attorney generals”, “singer-songwriters”, “boy-kings”, and so on. And, although there are a few exceptions, speakers of English tend to avoid plural endings in the middle of compound nouns: we say “anteaters” not “ants-eaters”, for example.
So next time you see a compound noun in print, I would urge you to forget for a moment how someone has decided to write it. Instead, try to admire it for what it is: the ripe fruit of a marriage between two seemingly unrelated disparate concepts and – quite possibly – the creation of something marvellous.
Because, wouldn’t the world be a poorer place without a “dawn-heart” or two?
Cook, G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Partridge, E. (1973) Usage and Abusage. Baltimore, MA: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (1999) Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
[Many thanks to John Cowan for pointing out that “jellyspoon” is indeed a functional serving utensil, and not a made up word as I had naively thought, undermining an earlier version of this post!]