Sally Greene has a blog entry expressing her annoyance with the increasing prevalence of compound nouns over the traditional adjective-plus-noun combination, eg “Law Department” vs “Legal Department,” “science issues,” “logistics problems,” and the like. I too find many of these collocations less than charming, but her final example, “desert island,” happens to be wrong: desert in the OED’s sense 2, ‘Uninhabited, unpeopled, desolate, lonely’ (1297 Robert of Gloucester: “The decyples.. Byleuede in a wyldernesse.. That me cleputh nou Glastynbury, that desert was tho”) is an adjective, and considerably earlier than deserted (first citation 1629 James Maxwell, Herodian of Alexandria his History of twenty Roman Cæsars: “The deserted Villages”). To prefer “deserted island” is to make the same mistake as to insist on “go slowly” rather than the much older “go slow.”


  1. Thanks. See my updates.

  2. Lal Zimman says:

    And you can also apply the stress-test for compounds. As I’ve heard it, “desert island” generally has stress on the head of the NP, island. If it was a compound, the stress would be on the first item. (This is like the blackbird vs. black bird distinction.)

  3. Regarding “Mount Desert Islands”, it’s îles du mont Désert.
    In Maine, you’re taught to pronounce, “mount dessert island”, although they can still tell that you’re up from Boston or New York for the summer.

  4. If it was a compound, the stress would be on the first item.
    Aha! Does this account for variations in how “ice cream” is pronounced? Different folk might construe it differently. In Australia it’s nearly always “ice cream”, but:
    ice cream (SOED; etymology: iced cream)
    ice cream, ice cream (Webster’s 3rd Int)
    (Collins and American Heritage give no ruling)
    Of course, the situation would be complicated when “ice cream” occurs in a compound: pronunciations of “ice-cream parlour”? Cf. also:
    The Chinese question-marking particles
    The Chinese question [as in "the immigrant question"]
    Chinese checkers
    “The Chinese question” is interesting. Suppose there were also a “Chinese solution” to be mentioned:
    The Chinese solution
    But the following is quite plausible:
    “I’m not interested in the Chinese question; I’m after the Chinese solution.”
    Is all this accounted for adequately by the relative weights of stresses in whole phrases, clauses, or sentences? Possibly.

  5. So what if “desert” was an adjective in 1297, which it currently isn’t?
    Since, which is to ask or enquire, when dates this diachronic despotisme?
    Synchronously “desert island” is just One Of Those Things, selon moi, which, selon encore moi, is just fine and dandy, but I also and in any case have no problem with compoundnounsyndrome.

  6. “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping…”
    Like the moody Dane, I find that I generally prefer to escape whipping; the solider pleasure of ice cream is more amenable to my temperament.

  7. Can you please elaborate on the distinction between “go slow” and “go slowly” ? Merci !

  8. No distinction in meaning; “slow” is the old, endingless adverb and “slowly” the newer one with the -ly ending. Some people don’t understand about endingless adverbs and try to “correct” anyone who says “Go slow” by saying “You mean ‘slowly’!” Those people are ignorant.

  9. “Loud” and “deep” work the same way. “Loud,” “deep,” and “slow” are examples of adjectives that became adverbs by the addition of a final “e”–but the “e” was lost by the end of the fourteenth century. Another example is in Dylan Thomas’ line (some might say “the Dylan Thomas line”) “Do not go gentle into that good night.” These examples ring true, do they not?

  10. So what if “desert” was an adjective in 1297, which it currently isn’t?
    ¿Qué? Who decides that “it currently isn’t”? SOED (which is, I allow, wrong often enough) has it as an adjective with its own headword entry, though its status is a little compromised:
    desert /…/ a. ME. [(O)Fr. désert f. L desertus pa. pple: see prec. Now treated as attrib. use DESERT n.2]
    1 Uninhabited, desolate, lonely. ME.
    b Of the nature of a desert; uncultivated, barren. LME.
    2 Deserted, forsaken, abandoned. arch. LME.
    ¶ Orig., & archaically in 18 & 19, stressed on 2nd syll. desertness n. barren desolation LME.
    Since, which is to ask or enquire, when dates this diachronic despotisme?
    The supposition that there is such a transtemporal tyranny in this case is disputed.
    As for Just One Of Those Things, I had hoped that my ice-cream (stressed-desserts?) example might prompt some elucidation; but it appears that it may not. One theorist’s Just One Of Those Things is another’s challenging explicandum.
    In the end, we may be assuming too readily that there is a rigorous and always applicable distinction to be drawn between substantive and adjective. An eminently revisable supposition.

  11. All these compound nouns could be considered the Germanification of English. ;)

  12. Another example of compound mania: NPR promotions. “Such and such, changing the world by funding initiatives for blah blah blah.” More often than not, the announcer says “FUNDING initiatives,” treating it as a compound noun. Occasionally you’ll hear one who says, as if he’s been coached, “funding INITIATIVES.” I think he’s been coached because I think that is the right way. It’s a participial phrase. It makes sense in the sentence that way. But the other way makes immediate sense to the annoucer because he (it is almost always a he) is so used to compound nouns.

  13. Merci à Sally Green et au chapeau des langues pour leurs réponses éclairantes et rigolotes. (surtout le commentaire sexiste de Sally)

  14. Noetica: I actually meant to claim that it currently isn’t 1297, but while I’m here: “desert” isn’t an general-purpose adjective in my idiolect. Eg:
    *”desert house”, *”the desert ship, the Marie Celeste”.
    If the ME of SOED’s analysis is Middle English, which I do not speak, I have no quarrel with them. If it’s meant to be Modern English, I still have no quarrel with them because I don’t care what they think, but they’re surely plain wrong.
    And I, for one, am especially interested in fossilised constructions such as “desert island”: there are lots of such examples of at the morpheme level: eg, “straw” in “strawberry” was cognate with “strew”, but is long since cranberrified and also at the lexical/syntactic level: I do not know what it is to be “spick”, nor what it is to be “span”, but I know very well what it is to be “spick and span”. (Anyone planning to tell me what the terms mean individually is warned that they just plain don’t, incidentally. They are synchronously opaque and that’s that.)

  15. De rien, Papotine. Now just to show that English is as perverse as it is rumored to be, consider this example:
    “They think I’m working hard, but really I’m hardly working.”

  16. “desert” isn’t an general-purpose adjective in my idiolect
    But nobody’s claiming that it’s a general-purpose adjective, simply that it’s an adjective in that phrase, which is, as you say, fossilized (well, actually you say fossilised, but that’s just your little way).

  17. Cryptic Ned says:

    Well, I never thought it was an adjective in that phrase. If someone says “desert island” I think of an island that consists of a desert, like in all the New Yorker cartoons, with one palm tree in the middle. In every reference I’ve ever made about the phrase, it isn’t necessary a deserted island; the point isn’t that there are no people on it, the point is that you can’t survive there because it’s a desert. That’s what I thought.
    This is irrelevant to the fact that I had no idea “desert” was ever an adjective anyway.

  18. Sally :
    Yeah, I’m hardly working too !!
    Des von bladet : I *always* wondered what “spick” and “span” meant on their own, honnest !
    Et j’adore les “expressions fossilisées”, comme vous dites, il y en a des tas, très mystérieuses, en anglais : tit for tat, Okey doky (ortho ?),nitty-gritty !

  19. John Emerson says:

    Chinese has dozens and hundreds of fossilized binomes. Traditional dictionaries always gave independent definitions for each member of the binome, even if there are no textual examples of either part being used independently. Thus, with “wombat” for example, the “wom” would be the male of the species, and the “bat” the female. These binomes abound in classical poetry and there’s an enormous, mostly fanciful literature on them. I’ve been told that Knechtges in his Wenxuan translation does a masterful job of interpreting one type of these (the impressionistic type, not the binome nouns).

  20. Des von Bladet:
    “Being native burghers of this desert city…” Shakespeare, As You Like It (1600).
    “I prithee, shepherd, if that love or gold
    can in this desert place buy entertainment…” loc. cit.
    “As how I came into that desert place…” loc. cit.
    “The Island, not yet Britain, but Albion, was in a manner desert and inhospitable, kept only by a remnant of Giants, whose excessive Force and Tyrannie had consumed the rest” Milton, History of Britain (1670).
    “With headlong haste they leave the desert shores,
    And brush the liquid seas with lab’ring oars” Dryden, translation of Aeneid (1697).
    “A man, who should find in a desert country the remains of pompous buildings, would conclude that the country had, in ancient times, been cultivated by civilized inhabitants…” David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).
    “Ask the shores of Barbary and its desert places” Irving Washington, Alhambra (1832).
    “…the buildings of the court empty, and desert, and uninhabited, without either man or beast within them” Charlotte Guest, translation of Mabinogion (c. 1840).
    “…a small, desert, uninhabited island…” Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856).
    “ME” in SOED does not mean “confined to Middle English”, but “starting from Middle English”.

  21. Ahem… that’s “Washington Irving”, rather.

  22. hardly working
    The Jerry Lewis reference is well chosen.

  23. John Emerson : WOMBAT ? I thougt it meant waste of money brains and time ! (pauvres chauves-souris)

  24. LH: Yes, having thought about it you’re quite right, it’s an fossil adjective. I was foolishly thinking of these as more disjoint categories than they are.
    Papotine: I like fossils a lot, but I have a principled indifference to what they once were. (Probably overcompensation from overdosing on folk etymologies.)
    Noetic: “Modern” as in straggling on after Shakespeare, then. Fair enough.

  25. Desert — um, pace Sally, IMO, Robert Frost seems to have thought it was an adjective:
    I have it in me so much nearer home
    To scare myself with my own desert places.

    And here in UK, “desert island” is often pronounced with the emphasis on “desert”. There is a weekly radio programme called “Desert Island Discs” so it’s fairly well established. But we speak a weird island dialect here anyway, so that’s no guide. Sorry, insular dialect.

  26. Anne, I have already grovelled to Mr. Hat and done my own confirming research, as my updates and subsequent postings here show! Thanks for reminding me of the Frost poem. (Someone commenting on my own blog–also from the UK–did mention Desert Island Discs, but thanks for that too.)

  27. caffeind says:

    You can tell someone is not a Californian when they use “Californian”. In California, it’s used rarely, and only as a noun, not an adjective. The usual adjective form of “California” is “California”. Britons seem to think the adjective form is “Californian”.

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