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COMPOUND WORD Also compound. A WORD made up of two or more other words: teapot, from tea and pot; blackbird, from black and bird. Compound words occur in many languages. In GERMAN, they are conventionally written in solid form: Eisenbahn (‘ironway’) railway; Eisenbahnknotenpunkt (‘ironwayknotpoint’) railway junction. In GREEK and LATIN, they are typically joined by thematic vowels, such as the -i- of Latin agricultura, the -o- of Greek biographia. In FRENCH, one kind of compound has the form of a prepositional phrase: pomme de terre (‘apple of earth’) potato; arc-en-ciel (‘arch in sky’) rainbow. Another consists of a verb-noun phrase: gratte-ciel (‘scrape-sky’) sky-scraper; grille-pain (‘grill-bread’) toaster. Such compounds occasionally occur in English; ‘man of the church’ matches homme d'église, and ‘breakwater’ matches brise-lames.

Compounds in English

The majority of English compounds fall into two types: (1) VERNACULAR compounds like teapot and blackbird, formed on principles typical of the Germanic languages. They are written in solid form, open form, or with hyphens. (2) CLASSICAL COMPOUNDS like agriculture and biography, based on the compounding patterns of Greek and Latin. They are generally written in solid form. There are also some minor groups, such as those containing prepositions, in the French style: commander-in-chief, man-at-arms, man of the church. Grammarians generally treat the vernacular form as the compound proper. The classical compound belongs to a stratum of language which serves as an international resource on which many languages draw: see INTERNATIONAL SCIENTIFIC VOCABULARY. The status of vernacular compounds has traditionally been established through two criteria: how they sound and how they appear in writing and print. Because of this, they can be divided for practical purposes into phonological compounds and orthographic compounds.

Phonological compounds

In SPEECH, most two-word compounds have a falling intonation and are stressed on the first word (TEApot, BLACKbird) or primary stress falls on the stressed syllable of the first word (eMERgency plan, RePUBlican Party). This pattern of stress and intonation usually serves to distinguish compounds from expressions which typically have equal stress on both elements: such adjectival phrases as the white house (as opposed to the WHITE House) and nouns used attributively (íron brídge, as opposed to IRONbridge, the name of a town in England). Compound words, and phrases containing ATTRIBUTIVE NOUNS, generally have explanatory paraphrases: teapot a pot for tea; iron bridge a bridge made of iron. The following examples show differences in sound and meaning between compound and attributive usages (the compound first in each pair): ORange juice juice squeezed from oranges and órange júice juice that is orange in colour; KEY position the position of a key or keys and kéy position a posítion of great importance.

Adjective/noun combinations like blackbird are established as compounds both on the phonological criterion of stress and the semantic criteria of generic use and unique reference. BLACKbird has the stress pattern of teapot (distinct from the stress pattern of a bláck bírd) and serves as the unique generic name for all such birds. Colour adjectives often figure in such compounds (blackboard, bluebird, brownstone, greenhouse, paleface, redcoat, redskin, whitecap) as well as in place and personal names (Blackburn, Greenland, Greystoke, Redpath, the White House, Whitehouse).

Phonological and related factors become more intricate as structures containing compounds increase in length. In car factory strike committee, stress is placed on both car and strike. The group can be analysed as ((CAR factory) (STRIKE committee)), and paraphrased as a ‘committee dealing with strikes in a factory that makes cars’. The compound car factory precedes the compound strike committee, and is therefore attributive. Such a combination is sometimes called a double or multiple compound. In principle, such groupings are indefinitely extensible: Coventry car factory strike committee policy decision, analysable as (((COventry) (CAR factory)) ((STRIKE committee) (POLicy decision))), and paraphrased as a ‘decision about policy made by a committee dealing with strikes in a factory that makes cars in Coventry’. In English, such expressions are not usually written as one word, as in German. Both languages, however, exploit very fully their capacity to form compounds and other multiple word groups.

Orthographic compounds

Traditionally, more attention has been paid to compounds on paper than to how they sound. In writing and print there are three forms: (1) Solid compounds, such as teapot and blackbird. (2) Hyphenated compounds, such as body-blow, bridge-builder, mud-walled. (3) Open compounds, such as Army depot, coffee cup. The conventions of solidity, hyphenation, and openness have tended to determine whether a word is considered a compound or not. Solidity and hyphenation endorse and reinforce compound status, visually distinguishing a greenhouse or a green-house from a green house (a house that is green). Although such distinctions can be valuable, they are not consistently applied: Whitehouse can be the name of a place or a family, but the White House in Washington is never *the Whitehouse or *the White-house.

In linguistics, the status of an item as a compound depends more on phonological than orthographic criteria, but in typography the orthographic forms have great importance. Even so, however, decisions about written compounds are more rule-of-thumb than rule, and fall into three groups: (1) Those made up of short words and therefore likely to be solid: teapot, blackbird. (2) Those made up of constituents which would look strange when combined and are therefore likely to be open (coffee cup rather than coffee-cup or coffeecup) or hyphenated (body-blow rather than bodyblow). (3) Compound-complex words are usually hyphenated: bridge-builder, mud-walled. However, many items freely vary: businessman, business-man, business man; wine bottle, wine-bottle, winebottle. As a further rule of thumb, the older and shorter a noun/noun or noun/adjective compound, the more likely it is to be solid: rattlesnake. The newer and longer it is, the more likely it is to be open: population explosion. Beyond that, the traditional practice appears to be, ‘When in doubt, use a hyphen’. However, the writing and printing of many compound patterns remain uncertain and idiosyncratic, except where a house style is firmly applied. The same writer may make the same compound solid in one place (worldview), hyphenate it in another (world-view), and open it up in a third (world view), sometimes within a few pages of each other.

Paraphrase patterns

Next to phonology and orthography, the most distinctive aspect of compounds is susceptibility to paraphrase. This exhibits a kind of covert syntax based mainly on prepositional phrases: the compound teapot can be paraphrased only as ‘a pot for tea’, not a ‘pot of tea’. Similarly, an armchair is ‘a chair with arms’, a flower pot ‘a pot for (holding) flowers’, a goatskin ‘the skin of a goat’, and a bank clerk ‘a clerk in a bank’. Innumerable semantic relationships of this kind occur among compounds, some easy to interpret in isolation, others dependent on context. London goods, for example, may be ‘goods in London’, ‘goods for London’, ‘goods from London’. Paraphrasing is not, however, always straightforward, even when the context is clear. What paraphrase is best for steamboat: ‘a boat that uses steam’, ‘a boat using steam’, ‘a boat driven by steam’, ‘a boat with a steam engine in it’, or ‘steam drives this boat’? Precise paraphrase is impossible, but imprecise paraphrases still work adequately, because the relation between steam and boat is clear enough. It is the same with sheepdog ‘a dog that? sheep’, silk merchant a merchant who? silk, car factory a factory? cars, and honey bee a bee that? honey.

Families of compounds

There are many sets of compounds based on the same word, such as gunboat, riverboat, rowboat, steamboat. In such sets, the second element is generic, but its relationship with each member of its set is likely to be different. A steamboat is a boat propelled by steam, but a riverboat is not a boat propelled by a river. It is a boat used on a river. A houseboat is neither a boat propelled by a house nor a boat used on or in a house, but a floating house in the form of a boat, or a boat in the form of a house, usually moored in one place. Analogous forms are unlikely. There is no *bungalow boat or *mansionboat, except for nonce or stunt purposes. A gunboat is a boat with one or more large guns on it, a rowboat is AmE for a boat that can be rowed, BrE equivalent a rowing boat. Such forms and relationships are legion, but native speakers generally have little difficulty with them. Similarly, they have no difficulty in distinguishing a houseboat from a boathouse or a horse race from a racehorse.

Compound names

Holistic compounds include proper names like Sutton (a reduced version of ‘South Town’) and Shakespeare (who shook no spears). Words like these have unique references and histories and their elements make no contribution to their everyday use. Historical association has produced various more or less opaque everyday compounds formed from names, such as Wellington boot (a British rubber boot named after the Duke of Wellington) and Balaclava helmet (a knitted cap associated with Balaclava, first used by British soldiers in the Crimean War). Such compounds are readily clipped, to become wellingtons (or wellies) and balaclavas.

Compounds in context

The coinage and use of compound words often follow a pattern of development in texts and social situations, usually a sequence that reinforces certain usages and may precipitate others. A character in a story may be introduced as a man with a red beard, brought in again as a red-bearded man and then called Redbeard. This might be his only name in a story for children or it could be an epithet, like Eric Redbeard, in a historical saga. In the flow of a narrative, new information is placed in focus in various ways. One such device is primary stress, already significant in compounds. It becomes particularly noticeable when texts containing patterns of compounding are read aloud, as in the following (each new focus italicized):Let's have a little talk about tweetle beetles—
What do you know about tweetle beetles? Well…
When tweetle beetles fight, it's called a tweetle beetle battle.
And when they battle in a puddle, it's a tweetle beetle puddle battle.
AND when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle, they call it a tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle.
AND when beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle
they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle.
(from Dr Seuss , Fox in Socks, 1960)

Creative paradigms

Nonce and stunt compounds are often generated by social and linguistic circumstance. In the US television series Hart to Hart (1983), a character is asked: ‘What's the matter, Max, you got heart-burn?’ To which he replies, referring to a game of poker, ‘Not only that—I got club-burn, diamond-burn, and spade-burn.’ Comparably, drug abuse begets, as needs arise and similarities are recognized, such parallel forms as alcohol abuse, child abuse, solvent abuse, spouse abuse, substance abuse. Analogical paradigms of this kind are common.


Vernacular compounding is an open system. Users of English daily form and forget compounds in which words of vastly different pedigree and association come together. The following come from data collected in the 1980s: ashram fashion, blimp patrol, energy vampire, karma debt, punctuality nut, Stupor Bowl, whale jazz, zombie powder. See ABBREVIATION, ANALOGY, COMBINING FORM, EPONYM, FIXED PHRASE, NOUN-INCORPORATION, PHRASAL VERB, WORD-FORMATION.