‘Dawn-hearts’ and ‘Jellyspoons’: Creativity and the Compound Noun


ImageAll 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.

Creative compounding

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.

In conclusion

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!]


‘C’est Cidre. Not Cider’: The Creative Use of Code-Switching in Advertising


Code-switching is broad term referring to the alternation between two or more languages, dialects or styles, within and between utterances and sentences. When it comes to linguistic creativity, code-switching provides a wealth of opportunities for the speaker, beyond those available in any single language or dialect. As well as being a creative mechanism in literature, music and film, it’s also a very creative tool for selling things – in branding, marketing and advertising.

And, as I also hope to show, code-switching in advertising is not something that requires fluency in a second language. Au contraire. Even people who would call themselves monolingual are probably more used to code-switching than they think – so much so, in fact, that they have probably stopped noticing how often the ‘(M)ad Men’ use it to tempt us.

The main role of code switching in marketing and branding, of course, is to evoke a foreign and desirable lifestyle – from a part of the world where the particular language is spoken – which thus becomes associated with the commodity in question. Outside of the Anglophone world, English in particular is employed to give brands an international or western feel. The example that Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros gives in her book on code-switching is from Germany. Here, in a poster advertising McDonald’s latest culinary creation, English is combined with the local language to ‘evoke a cosmopolitan – or American – lifestyle’ (p. 6, Gardner-Chloros, 2009):

‘McCroissant: The American Antwort auf Croissant. The lecker warm Croissant. Geschnitten in two Teile, this is very praktisch. So is genug Platz for weitere leckere things.’

[‘McCroissant: The American answer to Croissant. The delicious warm Croissant. Cut in two parts, this is very practical. So is enough room for further delicious things.’]

The text of the advert combines grammars, as well as words, from both languages. It also cleverly employs words like ‘so’, ‘warm’ and ‘in’ which are lexical items in both languages; this helps reduce the effort required by the reader to understand what is written, at the same time maintaining the pervasiveness of the English throughout the text.

If you travel anywhere outside of the Anglophone world – from Chile, to Kenya, to Beijing – you are likely to find similar examples. On a recent trip to Russia, it was noticeable that many restaurants in downtown St Petersburg and Moscow had Russian-English names, often switching languages in their signs (‘Restoran Meat Head’ was a particular favourite, and not just for the steak). And code-switching wasn’t only to be found in the catering sector. The business newspaper I picked up in Moscow airport was called the ‘RBC Daily’, which even switches scripts (from Cyrillic to Latin) in its title. Here, of course, (American) English is evocative of international business and commerce.

But code-switching is prevalent in the Anglophone world too, and English speaking consumers like me are just as likely to be taken in by it.

In the UK at least, French is especially common, partly because it is traditionally the most taught second language, but also because of the perceived attractiveness of the French lifestyle – and its connotations of elegance, sophistication and taste. As such, French is used to sell everything from cars and clothes, to perfume and beer.

Stella Artois, for example, is a Belgium beer, brewed in the Flemish speaking city of Leuven. However, to the US and UK market, it advertises itself as very definitely French. Recently, the company launched a new advertising campaign for its cider using a simple code-switch in the tagline:

C’est cidre. Not cider.’

[It’s ‘cidre’. Not cider.]

Such a tagline, of course, cleverly hinges upon the (perceived) superiority of everything French – including the language itself.

For obvious culinary reasons, the restaurant industry is arguably the place where code-switching to French is most common. Walking around any English speaking city, you’re likely to find plenty of French: here, a chain of French restaurants advertising ‘bonnes tables et vins’; there, a bistro advertising its ‘plat du jour’. If you’re an English speaker in the Anglophone world, you’re perhaps most likely to see code-switching in restaurant menus. And you see it so often, in fact, that you’ve possible stopped noticing it.

Take, for example, the menu for the Michelin-starred La Chappelle restaurant in London. The majority of the language may look like English, but the register is decidedly Francophone. Starters are labelled ‘Entrées’, main courses as ‘Plats principaux’. Appetisingly, there’s ‘ballotine of quail’, ‘pavé of halibut’, an ‘assiette of Herdwick lamb’ (what’s wrong with ‘plate’?), and ‘summer vegetables en cocette. There’s certainly a soupçon of code-switching going on, and that’s only in the à la carte menu.

Because of the status in Europe of French cuisine, French has dictated much of the English vocabulary for food and drink (‘restaurant’, ‘bistro’, ‘café’, ‘menu’, and so on). As such, it’s worth being careful to differentiate between code-switching and lexical borrowing. In borrowing, a ‘loan word’ is taken from a donor language and incorporated into the recipient language. However, in practice, it’s quite difficult to separate the two phenomena. In reality, there is a continuum between the two extremes: loans start off as code-switches and then gradually become established phonologically, morphologically, and so on, into the lexicon of the recipient language (Gardner-Chloros, 2009).

For example – for most English speakers I know at least –  ‘restaurant’ is a fully fledged ‘English’ word. However, there are still certain speakers, usually from among the British upper classes, that refuse to accept its English phonology. They still pronounce ‘restauranten français, without the terminal /t/ and with the final consonant Gallicly nasalized. That is, they refuse to borrow and, instead, are absolutely resolute in their code-switching.

Code-switching to another language like this can be used, of course, as a device to demonstrate how sophisticated we (think we) are. Interestingly, I once heard a particular member of this group – a food critic on a popular TV cooking competition – pluralise the phonologically-French ‘restaurant’ by adding a terminal /z/, as in English. Critics might say that this particular speaker, in an overtly pretentious effort, was failing to be as clever as he thought he was(!). Technically speaking, you would say within the speaker’s own idiolect the integration of ‘restaurant’ was complete morphologically, but not phonologically.

At the other end of the spectrum, even within the food business, there are those that are more resistant to code-switching. James Martin is a British TV chef who presents a popular Saturday morning cooking show in the UK. Albeit in jest, I once heard him say of ‘crème anglaise’ (BBC One, ‘Saturday Kitchen Live’, 5 October 2013):

‘Back where I come from, that’s called “custard” […] The difference is twenty quid!’

But, whatever you feel about code-switching in advertising – sophisticated, pretentious, or simply unnecessary – you can’t disagree that it’s everywhere. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous, that it’s very easy to stop noticing that it’s there at all.

Since, when it comes to the business of selling, there’s nothing like a bit of code-switching. Often, the difference is at least a few extra bucks.


There’s a short blog and interesting video about code-switching in advertising here (http://lindazonderop.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/code-switching-in-advertising.html).

Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009) Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.