Cutthroat Compounds.

I just got around to Stan Carey’s post from last month on a fascinating corner of English morphology:

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

Despite the familiarity of these examples, only a few dozen are current in modern English. It’s because they conflict with the right-headedness of English, Brianne writes in her master’s thesis (‘From Turncoats To Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounding in English’), that cutthroats’ productivity will never surpass that of ‘backstabber’ compounds, which use the far more usual N-V-er pattern. We’re ‘book readers’, not ‘readbooks’; ‘word lovers’, not ‘lovewords’.

Cutthroats largely constitute ‘a treasury of nonce words’, having peaked centuries ago. Survivors tend to be peripheral, found in slang, regional dialects, and children’s short-lived innovations. But Brianne is on a mission to catalogue them and has recorded several hundred, including such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person), spoil-paper (bad writer), whiparse (abusive teacher), eat-bee (bird), lacklooks (unattractive person), stretchgut (glutton), clutchfist (miser), and catch-fart (servant who walks behind their master).

There’s wonderful stuff there (whiparse! catch-fart!) and much more at the link, including the cutthroats spontaneously invented by kids before they grow out of it.


  1. I love this category, but I can never think what to call them. It was only this year that I learned that “hangman” is one of them, and it was maybe last year that I learned that “shunpike” was a 20th century coinage, in fact the winning entry in a “make-up-a-word-for-this” contest”. I’m guessing that “spendthrift” is one, and that “thrift” here means something like “money saved up”.

  2. Jim Parish says

    “Swashbuckler” is an interesting case, a cutthroat that looks like (and is often reinterpreted as) a backstabber. Are there any others like that?

    James Thurber invented a number of cutthroats in an essay on a game called “Superghosts”; the object was to find or coin a word with a given unlikely sequence of letters. He used “ssgr” to come up with “kissgranny” and “blessgravy”.

  3. A large layer of Ukrainian surnames (Перебейнос Непейвода Непейпиво Подопригора …. some of which may be spoofs? I don’t know) are formed this way, so English words like pickpocket sounds distinctly Ukrainian-infused to me.

  4. Ken Miner says

    Seems to me we used to call these bahuvrihi. (I liked the old Sanskrit terms, dvandva and so on.) Perhaps the V-N are a subtype of bahuvrihi?

  5. marie-lucie says

    I have always thought that these English compounds are following the French (and Romance) pattern, as in:

    un coupe-gorge, lit. ‘cut(s)-throat’ (a den of criminals, a place where you risk getting killed),
    un tournebroche ‘spit (for roasting)’ (lit. ‘turn(s)-spit’),
    un tournevis ‘screwdriver’ (lit. ‘turn(s)-screw’),
    un ouvre-boîte ‘can opener’ (lit. ‘open(s)-box/can’,
    un porte-plume ‘pen holder’ (lit. ‘hold(s)-pen’, a writing instrument holding a metal pen)
    un fume-cigarette ‘cigarette holder’ (lit. ‘smoke(s)-cig.’)(a kind of tube holding a cigarette away from the smoker)
    un tire-bouchon ‘corkscrew’ (lit. ‘pull(s)-cork’)
    un vide-poche ‘a pocket-like container, often nailed to the wall close to the entrance door, where you put keys and other small objects often held in your pockets when you take off your outdoor coat’ (lit ’empty(s)-pocket(s)’,
    un passe-montagne ‘balaclava’ (a kind of tuque covering the entire head, leaving holes for eyes and mouth)(lit. ‘pass(es) over-mountain(s)’)

    among probably hundreds of others.

  6. ‘Lickspittle’, another good one.

    (Peeve: I don’t like titles and subtitles that start with “How…” I wish they would go away.)

  7. Scofflaw is one of the few recent-ish ones; it was created “deliberately” as the result of a contest in the 1920s, and people (like me) are usually surprised to learn that it’s so new.

    @Ø: Being familiar only with the adjective thrifty, I initially imagined that a spendthrift was a thrifty person, when of course it’s really the complete opposite.

    @marie-lucie: It’s interesting that Spanish compounds almost uniformly use the plural form of the noun – for example, abrelatas, lavaplatos, rascacielos, portaplumas, sacacorchos, paraguas, parabrisas, lavamanos, lanzamisiles, calientaplatos, portaaviones.

  8. Bathrobe says

    I haven’t been able to look, but does ‘fuckwit’ belong on the list?

  9. … and Spanish chupacabras, too, which English speakers sometimes mistakenly interpret as a plural noun.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    James Thurber somewhere talks about a game he and his friends used to play where one started with a string of letters and had to invent words containing that string. His examples for “ssgr” included

    “kissgranny” explained as: a young man who makes up to older heiresses in the hope of receiving a legacy
    “dressgrader”: a woman who disdainfully and obviously appraises another woman’s clothing: “a starefrock”

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Oops: apologies to Jim Parish. Need to improve my reading skills before posting.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s interesting that the English cutthroat words are heavily skewed in favour of pejoratives; seems to be an active thing given that Thurber’s nonce examples seem to be mostly derogatory as well.

  13. My favourite English vanished surname, Suckbitch, might be a cutthroat – there’s a medieval Romulus and Remus legend as back-story, cited in Baring-Gould’s Family Names and their Story. Perhaps understandably, doubt has been cast on this.

  14. “Scofflaw” won the competition because it was a clever pun on “scoff” [‘deride’ and ‘consume’]. By the time Prohibition ended and the ‘consume’ sense was no longer salient, the word had stuck.

  15. PJA Maparty says


    un ouvre-boîte ‘can opener’ – I suppose this must account for the Norwegian word boks for can or tin (box is eske), which used to drive me mad – “a box of Coca-cola” sounds all wrong.

  16. Which reminds me that Sandi Toksvig, the chair of the very funny BBC radio News Quiz, apparently got into some trouble for her comment about the Conservatives being “the Party that puts the N in ‘cuts'”.

  17. Is “hangman” a man who hangs (not a cutthroat); or one who hangs men (a cutthroat)?

  18. Metalleus, let me be the first to welcome you back! You haven’t posted here since 2004.

    I will tell the story of the demon Tvaṣṭṛ, who wanted to create a magical son named Trisiras (he had three heads, one for eating, one for watching, and one for reciting the Vedas) who would slay the god Indra. So the spell Tvaṣṭṛ cast used the word indra-śatru ‘Indra slayer’. He should have stressed the last syllable, which would have given the tatpuruṣa compound ‘Indra’s slayer’, but unfortunately, being an ignorant demon rather than a Sanskritist, instead stressed it on the first syllable. This gave a bahuvrīhi compound — and his son was created and promptly slain by Indra. Oh well. (I have to say, however, that another version of the story has Indra killing Trisiras because the three heads frightened him and because Trisiras was indifferent to the women Indra sent him in order to seduce him to his service.)

    Seriously, though, the head of a VN compound is the verb, whereas the compound as a whole is always a noun, so it’s kind of pointless to draw the endocentric/exocentric distinction at all; such compounds can’t help being exocentric.

  19. Metalleus, let me be the first to welcome you back! You haven’t posted here since 2004.

    Who he? I originally thought you meant Jim Parish, but he’s been here more recently than that (e.g., 2007).

  20. D-AW: Apparently the former. However, it was sufficiently felt as an endocentric compound for hangster ‘female executioner’ to have a single appearance in the language around 1430: “Now, quod j [quoth I], art thow an hangestere? Ye, certeyn, quod she.”

    Y: I’d say that chupacabra is now the standard English word for the critter, following in the illustrious footsteps of cherry, pea, shay, Yankee, sherry, termite, phase, syringe (and more debatably kudo, homo sapien, bicep), all words which have been back-formāted. The normal English versions of such compounds (like the literal translation ‘goat sucker’) cannot inflect the first noun for number (unless it is irregular, in which case such compounds are possible and sometimes preferred), even though a goat sucker is evidently something that sucks goats, not just one goat.

  21. J. W. Brewer says

    I am a bit skeptical of mollymooly’s double-entendre theory, since the usual modern AmEng word for the sense of “scoff” he alludes to (which was not familiar to me in that variant) is “scarf” as in e.g. “to scarf down pizza.” Of course there may be some weird rhotic/non-rhotic thing explaining the trans-Atlantic difference. And I guess I cannot rule out the possibility that “scoff” was used in the U.S. circa 1924 or at least used around (non-rhotic) Boston where “scofflaw” was coined? (A further difficulty is that I don’t think of beverages, alcoholic or non-, being subject to scarfing; at least in my idiolect the object of the verb has to be solid food.)

  22. Ken Miner. See the Metalleus archive. Of course, this could be a different Ken Miner, in which case perfututus sum.

  23. “Wardrobe”, “turnkey”, “turnspit”…

  24. “Swashbuckler” is an interesting case, a cutthroat that looks like

    ..which I have heard more than once re-analyzed as a N-V compound “They buckled some swash and captured the ship.”

    whiparse (abusive teacher),

    ….alongside the American version with the same etymology and quite different usage “whup ass”, as in the threat “Boy, I got me a whole new can of whup ass…”

  25. The native Japanese compounds of this nature are N-V, as in 腹切り hara-kiri ‘belly-cut’, kan-kiri ‘can-cut’ (can-opener), etc. (‘throatcuts’, as befits Japanese word order), but the Sino-Japanese compounds are V-N, as in 切腹 sep-puku ‘cut-belly’.

  26. JC: Yankee < Du. Janke ‘Johnny’, no?

  27. I think of these as terpsimbrotos compounds, though googling around it looks like that term might not be used much except with reference to that specific class of Greek compounds and its Indo-Iranian cognate class. In any case they aren’t bahuvrihis, though they’re exocentric like bahuvrihis.

  28. Y: Possibly, but the final -ee must be accounted for. Other possible etymologies are Jan Kes ‘Jan Cornelius’ and Jan Kees, where kees is dialectal for kaas ‘cheese’, with the help of the Great Vowel Shift. The latter etymology is the one I had in mind. Etymonline cites Jack-pudding, Hans Wurst, Jean Farine as analogous expressions for ‘merry fellow’.

    TR: Nice word!

  29. @Ø: These compounds have also been called Shakespeare, scarecrow, and tosspot compounds. I use CUTTHROAT because it represents the most common category described – people, specifically criminals, specifically violent criminals. It’s also a clear image. I’ll have to look into HANGMAN. It’s tough when the noun could be the head of the word, instead of just the direct object. I have a similar issue with MAKEHAWK, which is a hawk that falconers use to train other hawks. It makes hawks, but is also a hawk. It doesn’t have to be exocentric to make sense, so does Ockham’s razor come in? Does it count if it *could* be interpreted that way, or does it have to be born with that intention?

    @Jim Parish: Yes, SWASHBUCKLER is a surprising cutthroat. Swash means strike and buckler is a shield. I don’t believe there are any other noun-verber looking ones but there are 880 at this point so it’s tough to remember.

    @Jim Parish & David Eddyshaw: I came across James Thurber’s KISSGRANNY compounds at some point, and it’s hard to know what to do with them. I’m in a similar situation with my own creations – when you deliberate construct new examples, do you write them down anywhere? I built a sandcastle once and called it Castle Breakwave. Marketing firms deliberately invent portmanteaus to make a new product pop, but brands have a global reach, whereas Castle Breakwave was just between me and that beach. Related to kissgranny is BUSS BEGGAR (1811). BUS means KISS, someone who would kiss a beggar, possibly used only facetiously.

    @Ken Minor: I like using the terms BAHUVRIHI and dvandva too. Bahuvrihi gets called ‘exocentric’ (vs. endocentric), meaning the head of the compound is not contained within the compound. Cutthroats are one kind of exocentric compound. More common exocentric compounds like sabertooth and egghead have the left-hand word modifying the right-hand word, kind of like a head is modified. In cutthroats, the right-hand word is the direct object of the verb, so the verb is in charge, making the left-hand constituent the more syntactically powerful of the two. So cutthroats a rare kind of a rare kind.

    @marie-lucie: Yes, English had some minor ability to make cutthroats before the Norman invasion, but it was living with French that raised cutthroat productivity. French also donated many calques. We borrowed GAIN-PAIN and WARDE-CORPS, as well as translating them into win-bread (then bread-winner) and body guard.

    @Y: LICKSPITTLE is a good one. There are a lot of names for gluttons, and parasitic do-nothings who eat all your food and add nothing to society. I was not aware of the “HOW…” title peeve. Hm.

    I am beyond thrilled at the comments here. Having more eyes and brains on the lookout for cutthroats is exactly what I need. (1000 years of English is a lot of data to sort through alone). I’ll be back later to respond to more comments. Thanks, everybody.

  30. Nice to see you here, Brianne, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the conversation!

  31. In my latest editing job, I just hit the word carry-tale (‘informer’).

  32. Brianne: I trust your website name ( is not meant to be read as a cutthroat compound! Per the OED, the verb tank first meant ‘strike, beat’, then ‘criticize’, then ‘beat up, assault’, and then ‘defeat’, all transitive senses that precede the intransitive senses ‘deliberately fail’ > ‘fail’.

    The convoluted etymology of tank.

  33. “word lovers’, not ‘lovewords’”

    Though we are of course philologists. And mis-anthropists. (I speak for myself.)

  34. @Brianne @Jim Parish “dashbuckler” (OED sv dash v1. 1567 Fenton Trag. Disc. 123 b, “A traine of *dashbucklers or squaring tospottes.”)

    I went and pulled out all of OED’s examples (~190) from the combinations sections of verbs, which I’ve listed in a follow-on post, here: .

  35. Trond Engen says

    I just read Seymour Hersh’s LRB account of the bin Laden raid. That made me realize a couple of things:

    1) The verb-noun compounds may have been formed by stretching the verb-modifier matrix: walk-in “person unexpectedly showing up with intelligence”.

    2) There are at least two types of verb-modifier compounds, superficially identical but with different referents (or external heads, or whatever). One is walk-in as glossed above, the other is walk-in “the act of unexpectedly showing up with intelligence” and cover-up.

    3) The first type may be derived from the second.

  36. This paper by Karen Steffen Chung compares Romance to Chinese examples. The latter include some very common words (司机 sījī (lit. ‘govern-machine’) ‘driver’). On page 17 she interprets 点心 diǎnxīn ‘dimsum’ (snack) as ‘touch-heart ‘touch-heart (to calm its urge to eat)’.

    A Progovan and Locke article previously discussed here has a few Serbian examples.

    Exocentric verb-noun compounds would seem to be rather uncommon cross-linguistically. Looking for Sino-Tibetan examples I found thunlai (apparently spelled थुनलाइ in Devanagari) ‘literature’ or literally ‘draft pages’ i.e. ‘the drafting of pages’ which is slightly off-topic as a non-cutthroat (the compound doesn’t stand for the subject of the verb) but seemed interesting anyway.

  37. Ken Miner says

    John Cowan, thanks for the welcome. But I haven’t posted or commented here before (checked the archive for 2004 in case I forgot).

  38. Thanks to Dr Google, here are links to your comments on the posts “Beekeeping Terms” (May 18), “Menominee” (June 9), “Amherst” (September 7), “Black English” (September 12), and “Native Speaker” (October 17).

  39. George Gibbard says

    search this thread for Piotr Gasiorowski on ‘hangman’ and ‘hangdog’:

  40. Ken Miner says

    John, thx! Obviously I relied on the topics to remind me, and they didn’t.

  41. For what it’s worth, Russian seems to favour the NV model: головорез, книгочей, etc. Off the top of my head, I can only think of VN cases: лизоблюд (lit. “lick-dish,” for sycophant) and сорвиголова (lit. “break-head,” for daredevil). Not to count numerous French borrowings: портфель, абажур, кашне…

  42. Oops. It should’ve been “I can only think of two VN cases”

  43. Here are the relevant comments from the thread George Gibbard links to. He wrote:

    Piotr — wait, how do you know that
    > a hangman is ‘one who hangs men (well, women too)’ rather than ‘a man who hangs (people)’

    Piotr Gąsiorowski replied:

    (1) The non-existence of parallel formations: all other Early English nouns with -man as the second element have a noun (or sometimes an adjective), not a verb, as their first member. Even ploughman and waccheman ‘watchman’ are N+N, not V+N (like ploughwrighte and waccheword). We have slaughterman but no *slẹ̄man; horsman but no *rīdeman. The same goes for other endocentric compounds. Hangglider is possible today, when zero-derived nouns are indistinguishable from verb stems, but in ME hang(e)man, hong(e)man, heng(e)man, the first member is unambiguously a verb. Some counterexamples admittedly existed, e.g. ME whetstǭn (< OE hwetstān) ‘whetstone’, grīndstǭn and rīdewei ‘riding-path’, OE rīdehere ‘cavalry’ (beside more common rǣdehere, with rǣde ‘mounted’), but they seem to have been rare at the time, and I haven’t been able to found any among ME occupational terms.

    (2) The existence of exocentric parallels (hangdog, whose original meaning was ‘municipal dog-killer’ — a low-prestige profession, it seems).

    (3) The actual (if rare) attestation of the expected exocentric plural in Middle English (hengmannis).

  44. A Progovan and Locke article previously discussed here

    I see that I was already riding my terpsimbrotos hobbyhorse then. I should probably dismount, since no one else seems to use the term for these cutthroats and anyway they’re either not quite or possibly not at all the same thing (the -ti or -si between the elements of terpsimbrotos compounds is historically either a 3sg. verb ending or else an action noun suffix, it’s not clear which).

  45. My favorite is “sellsword.”

  46. @John Cowan:

    > Seriously, though, the head of a VN compound is the verb, whereas the compound as a whole is always a noun, so it’s kind of pointless to draw the endocentric/exocentric distinction at all; such compounds can’t help being exocentric.

    I don’t think this argument holds water. After all, “exocentric” is very regularly applied to bahuvrihi compounds like “white-collar”, where the head is a noun and the compound as a whole is an adjective.

    (Also, Trond Engen’s examples of “walk-in ‘the act of unexpectedly showing up with intelligence’ and cover-up” seem sort-of-endocentric to me, despite being nouns that are headed by verbs. Obviously the syntax doesn’t work that way, though.)

  47. When I was maybe eleven and just beginning to catch on to what some forbidden words literally referred to, I got “shit” and “fuck” sorted out but it seems to me that there were a couple of compounds, opprobrious epithets — “shitass” and “fuckass” — that I never gave enough thought to at the time. The eleven-year-old me construed them as random compounds of two bad words, but many years later it struck me that they might well belong to the category we’re discussing now.

  48. @TR
    Terpsimbrotos is not such a bad name for the phenomenon if the -si- is indeed a verb ending, since that’s what happens in the Romance and Slavic examples (in Romance precisely 3sg present).

    Are there any attested cases of that structure in Sanskrit? I don’t know of any. The closest Classical Sanskrit seems to get to a cutthroat is a type of bahuvrīhi where the first member is a past passive participle of a verb, and the compound stands for its subject:

    ukta-vākya (spoken-word) ‘who has spoken’;

    kṛta-kṛtya (done-(what-is-to-be-done)) ‘who has done his duty, reached his goal’;

    and perhaps this one: asta-moha (thrown-delusion) ‘free from all delusion’ (spotted in the wild here, p. 121).

    On reflexion though, these and all other the examples I’ve seen can be interpreted as instances of ‘whose noun has been verbed’ more common for that class of compounds (i.e. as analogous to ‘broken-hearted’).

    In Vedic there are a few (almost-)true cutthroats of the form present active participle + object, like ‘overcoming foes’ or ‘bestowing wealth’. Whitney has examples (§1309).

    The French parallel to ‘break-head’ – casse-tête – means ‘puzzle’ i.e. головоломка (cutthroat in Polish: łamigłówka). There’s also a ‘lick-plate’ there lèche-plat, a Belgian word for a fish slice or spatula. Unsurprisingly there are more examples with lèche- of which the most printable might be lèche-vitrines (not a true cutthroat since it refers to the activity, not the agent).

    More Russian examples (§553 and also here): скопидом ‘hoarder’. In most cases the verb appears in the 2sg imperative, like in Serbian in the Progovan paper. Lizoblyud is unusual in that sense.

    Polish (list):
    łamistrajk ‘strikebreaker’;
    moczygęba ‘drunk’ (lit. ‘wets-the-face’).
    In the Polish examples the verb can be said to be in the 3sg present, or in the imperative but followed by an infix -i-/-y-. Exception:
    fajtłapa ‘bungler, inept person’, originally ‘ lame dog’ from fajtać ‘swing, or brandish’ and łapa ‘leg’. Fajtać had earlier meant to ‘brandish a sword’ and is said to come ultimately from English fight (recently reborrowed as fajtować).

    Dutch examples, including dwingeland ‘tyrant’.

    Non-example: likkewaan (whence “leguan”) in Afrikaans, which comes from just where ‘iguana’ comes from and thus doesn’t mean ‘lick-delusion’.

    Apologies for the long comment…

  49. La Horde Listener says

    “The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx”, by Stefan Kanfer, page 257, mentions a song, “The Tenement Symphony”, from one of the Marx Brothers films. Mr. Kanfer writes “For this Melting Pot flapdoodle the writers had no one to blame but themselves…” I’ll quote some of the ersatz lyrics upon request, but wow: flapdoodle!

  50. Are there any attested cases of that structure in Sanskrit?

    MacDonnell says there are “some half dozen examples” in the Rigveda: e.g. dāti-vāra (accent on the first syllable) “giving treasures”, vītí-rādhas “enjoying the oblation”.

    The -ti- in these compounds, whatever it is morphologically, regularly gave -si- in the Attic-Ionic and Arcado-Cypriot dialects of Greek. Homer somewhere mentions (I can’t find it at the moment, but someone here will probably know) a grandfather and grandson with identical names except that the former has -ti- and the latter has -si- — as if he knew of this sound change and thought he could date it to within a generation.

  51. P’i-kou: curiously enough, casse-tête is also present in Russian (кастет) albeit in a more literal sense: it means brass knuckles.

  52. …in turn called poing américain ‘American fist’…

    …or in Cantonese 鐵蓮花 tit3 lin4 fa1, literally ‘iron lotus’. A Mandarin name is 手指虎 shǒuzhǐ hǔ ‘finger tiger’, apparently popular in Taiwan (I mean the name).

    …or in Japanese メリケンサック merikensakku (< 'American sack'? I'd rather have a letter of dismissal thank you very much).

  53. ‘Iron lotuses’ are illegal to carry in both Taiwan and HK. Cursory googling reveals they are often featured in the local press. The HK Apple Daily had a story two days ago about a member of the Sun Yee On 新義安 triad found in possession of one, in addition to other hand-to-hand combat weapons and various drugs which he kept for ‘self-defence’ (likely referring to the weapons).

    More cursory googling reveals the device can be bought online in Mainland China for as little as $4 (I guess I shouldn’t link).

  54. “Tenement Symphony”. The film in question is The Big Store.

  55. At least one Spanish proper name falls in this category: Matamoros.

  56. There’s a village in Spain that recently changed its name from Castrillo Matajudíos to Castrillo Mota de Judíos, but I haven’t heard of anything comparable for the places in Mexico called Matamoros. Although the latter case is complicated by the fact that they’re named after a man, Mariano Matamoros, rather than the actual concept.

  57. The easternmost town in Pennsylvania is called Matamoras – apparently a transcription error from when it was named after the Mexican town, rather than an exhortation to kill only the Moorish women. It hadn’t occurred to me when I wrote my last that ‘Matamoros’ is closer in meaning to the word from which we began (‘cutthroat’) than most of the parallels.

  58. Rodger C says

    @Michael Hendry: There’s also a Metamora, WV. I suppose these names all date from ca. 1848.

    The original of them all, I think, is Santiago Matamoros, i.e. St. James the Greater, who was often called on for aid in battles between Christians and Muslims, C.E. 711-1492.

  59. There’s also a Metamora, WV. I suppose these names all date from ca. 1848.

    Nope, Metamora is earlier (Google knows of a Metamora, IN, and a Metamora, MI, as well) — it’s from the popular 1829 play Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (discussed at LH here).

  60. And now that I think of it, I wonder where the name Metamora comes from — is it a genuine Wampanoag name, or did Stone make it up?

  61. @Brianne Hughes a bit.
    Shakespeare is sometimes humorously “translated” into Icelandic as Vilhjálmur Hristispjót (William shake-spear).

    French faisnéant, German Taugenichts. I can´t think of any real life Icelandic or Old Norse examples off the top of my head.
    I always liked bahuvrihi (and svarabhakti as well)

  62. marie-lucie says

    Tom V: the French word is un fainéant, probably including the 3rd person verb form in fait – néant “do(es)-nothing”.

  63. Trond Engen says

    Norwegian slikkepott/sleikjepott “spatula; (to children) index finger” could well be a calque of French through German.

    I was going to say that I can’t think of any modern and native examples from Norwegian, but then I remembered trådegihjel lit. “pedal-till-you-die” = “pedal moped”.

  64. Tosspot. A favorite.

  65. David Marjanović says

    such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person)

    I’ve seen lackwit in actual current use, and not just once, I think.

    Fuckwit, though, must be backformed from fuckwitted; compare fuckbrained

    German Taugenichts

    Also Tunichtgut. The few cutthroats there are in German all sound like imperatives.

    (“Cutthroat” itself isn’t one: Halsabschneider = neck-off-cut-er.)

  66. According to legend, the Thugut family was formerly known as Thunichtgut, and before that, Tunicotto (the family was Tyrolean).

  67. Telltale as a noun is new to me. Tattletale of course is very familiar.
    Also, Does midwife qualify?

  68. Not as a VN compound, no: mid is an obsolete preposition, cognate to German mit and now replaced by with, so a midwife is etymologically someone who is ‘with a woman’.

  69. Rodger C says

    I would have analyzed “midwife” as “a woman who is with, i.e. attends.”

  70. The OED agrees with you (I’m not marking this up today):

    Probably < mid adv.1 + wife n.; the original sense seems to have been ‘woman (wife n. 1a) who is with the mother at childbirth’. With the formation compare German (arch.) Beifrau female assistant, especially midwife’s assistant (1377 in early modern German as bijfrauwe concubine < bij (see by- comb. form) + frauwe (see frau n.)). Compare later midwoman n.

    The apparent Romance parallels which are sometimes adduced (French regional commère midwife, Italian (now regional) comare midwife (a1498 in this sense), Spanish comadre midwife (1552 in this sense)), are in fact only later sense developments of an original sense ‘godmother’, lit. ‘fellow-mother’ (see cummer n.).

    An alternative etymology derives the first element of the word < mid adj., with original sense ‘woman who mediates between mother and baby’, but this seems less likely.

    Forms with stem vowel e in the first element (e.g. med- , mede- , which do not otherwise occur as variants of mid prep.1 and adv.1) are probably partly by analogy with words like mediator n., mediatrice n., etc., and partly a reanalysis by folk etymology as if < meed n. + wife n.Older Scots forms in mad-, maid- probably represent an alternative reanalysis of the first element as if < maid n.1

    J. Wright Eng. Dial. Gram. (1905) 58/2 records the general disappearance of medial w in this word in regional dialect; N.E.D. (1906) notes s.v.: ‘The colloquial pronunciation (mi·dif) /ˈmɪdɪf/ is now seldom heard’, but no other dictionary of the period appears to record this variant.

    A 1983 quotation says “There is no reason for advertisements not to use the term ‘midwife’ when inviting applications for jobs although we would expect it to be made clear that either men or women could apply.”

    The meed mentioned above is ‘wages, reward’; cummer/kimmer is Scots for ‘woman’ < ‘female friend’ < ‘godmother of one’s child’, < French commère ‘id.’.

  71. David Marjanović says

    I wrote:

    The few cutthroats there are in German all sound like imperatives.

    I think they’re all formed from the stem of the verb (no 3rd-person ending), but the full stem before apocope: in addition to Taugenichts, there’s Wendehals (1) “wryneck“, (2) “turncoat”. …And that’s pretty much it.

  72. David Marjanović says

    What about verbs like leapfrog?

  73. That’s denominal, so doesn’t count.

  74. David: I wrote: The few cutthroats there are in German all sound like imperatives. … I think they’re all formed from the stem of the verb (no 3rd-person ending), but the full stem before apocope: in addition to Taugenichts, there’s Wendehals (1) “wryneck“, (2) “turncoat”. …And that’s pretty much it.

    In this learned discussion (two pages back, on 180), the author wonders woders whether the following German composites can be described as exocentric or endocentric:

    Häkelnadel, Badetasche, Wanderweg, Radiergummi, Lesebuch, Platzpatrone, Ziehkarmonika

    His reluctant conclusion is that none of these words fits into either category.

    Liebers System kann nur diejenigen Formen behandeln, in denen die nominale Zweitkonstituente eine Instanz eines internen Verbarguments ist. Diese Bedingung scheinen die wenigsten Wörter mit einer Verb-Nomen-Struktur erfüllen zu können – von den Beispielen nur eins, nämlich Ziehharmonika. In der überwiegenden Mehrzahl der Fälle kommen agentive, kausative, instumentale, lokale und andere Beziehungen zwischen Zweit- und Erstkonstituente vor, die sich der strikten Verbsubkategorisierung entziehen.

    Jammersuse might be another item for the above list of German composites that are neither exo nor endo.

  75. I say “might be” because I am not accustomed to this angelic head-of-a-pin choreographic analysis, and my head is now swimming.

  76. George Gibbard says

    The author presupposes that these words are endocentric with the noun as the head; the question is whether Lieber is right that the noun must also be the logical object of the verb (obviously not), or whether is Selkirk is right that this compound construction will just mean ‘(noun) that has something to do with (verbing)’ (I don’t get why this is supposed to not be right), or both authors are right for different compounds (the author’s seemingly silly conclusion).

  77. marie-lucie says

    French GAIN-PAIN > win-bread > “bread-winner”

    The French word is gagne-pain lit. ‘gain(s)/earn(s)-bread’, which in modern French means ‘job, activity through which a person earns their bread’. French gain is a noun meaning ‘gain, winnings’.

  78. David Marjanović says

    or whether is Selkirk is right that this compound construction will just mean ‘(noun) that has something to do with (verbing)’ (I don’t get why this is supposed to not be right)

    Me neither.

  79. Portuguese has many, such as guarda-chuva (umbrella) and guarda-fogo (fireplace screen).

  80. David Marjanović says

    Back in 2015…

    Per the OED, the verb tank first meant ‘strike, beat’, then ‘criticize’, then ‘beat up, assault’, and then ‘defeat’, all transitive senses that precede the intransitive senses ‘deliberately fail’ > ‘fail’.

    Oh! Zanken, regional for “quarreling”.

  81. OED’s word of the day is rakeshame, ‘A disreputable or dissolute person; a rogue.’

  82. An excellent word!

  83. 1598 H. Roberts Honours Conquest sig. fᵛ An vgly monster of men, with a face as grieslie as a Beare, came vnto him, accompanied with a traine of rakeshames.
    1599 Master Broughtons Lett. Answered v. 15 It is an easie matter for euery rakeshame to reuile an innocent.
    1682 A. Behn City-heiress iv. i. 39 Marry you! a Rakeshame..without Money or Credit.
    1786 H. Cowley School for Greybeards iv. 48 A young rakeshame! your not liking him proves you have your father’s penetration.
    c1840 J. G. Whittier Dr. Singletary in Tales & Sketches vi There’s not a more drunken, swearing rakeshame in town than Tom Osborne.
    1995 L. Blackwell Like River Glorious iv. 81 When he first came to work for your family, I thought he was the worst rakeshame I ever saw.

  84. Stu Clayton says

    Oh! Zanken, regional for “quarreling”.

    There’s nothing regional about it here. Duden and DWDS make no such claim. I’ve known and used the word forever, and I’m not a regional type of guy. sie zanken (sich), sie zanken miteinander.

    The only “landschaftlich” use is when the quarreling is not mutual:

    2. (mit jemandem) schimpfen (1b)

    Gebrauch landschaftlich

    BEISPIEL muss ich schon wieder zanken?

    I would never have associated it with those older meanings of “tank”, since I didn’t know them. But the adumbrated connection is cute.

    Edit: readers must remain aware that Austria and Germany are two nations united by portions of one language.

  85. David Marjanović says

    There’s nothing regional about it here.

    If you have to add “here”, it’s regional. 🙂

    I’ve never heard it in the wild and only know it from reading (and perhaps from TV shows made in Germany). The word I’m used to is streiten.

  86. @David Marjanović: How far would you say Vienna, Cologne and Oldenburg everyday speech are different from one another? That’s the varieties of German that I have encountered (and some Dresden).

  87. @Sentence first: Thanks for introducing me to Brianne Hughes. She’s great at stand-up, and comedy in general.

  88. David Marjanović says

    How far would you say Vienna, Cologne and Oldenburg everyday speech are different from one another?

    If you mean the mesolects of Young People Today, I actually know rather little about the differences between those of Cologne and Oldenburg, but Vienna’s may be as far from the others as Standard Russian from Standard Ukrainian, or Standard Bulgarian from Standard Macedonian. I mean phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and vocabulary.

    The dialects are much farther apart – try Serbian, Russian and Polish.

  89. @V: The problem with measuring the distance of mesolects is that people don’t use them with outsiders (at least in Oldenburg or Cologne), but try for an approximation of Standard German that a) has some regional phonological features (because they’re mostly subconscious) and b) some regional words thrown in (the kind of words where people aren’t aware that they’re regional or where they don’t know any non-regional equivalent). To get exposure to the mesolect of a place, you need to be at home there, integrated with friends and neighbors who use the mesolect.
    That said, as someone who grew up in Northern Germany and has lived in the Cologne-Bonn area for over 20 years, the difference between the mesolects in Cologne and Bonn are minor – mostly intonation / speech melody, differences in vowel length, the pronunciation of final /g/ (fricative vs. voiceless stops) and some local words. IMO, less than Russian vs. Ukrainian, more than Moscow vs. Petersburg Russian. (The respective dialects are a different issue, but while Cologne dialect is still alive, I doubt that you’d find a lot of speakers of Platt in Oldenburg).
    As for Vienna, I’ve been there mostly as tourist or on business trips, so people spoke Austrian-tinged Standard German with me. On the few occasions where I heard Viennese talking among themselves, it was comprehensible, but more “alien”-sounding than Cologne or Northern German mesolects.

  90. David Marjanović says

    people don’t use them with outsiders (at least in Oldenburg or Cologne)

    In Vienna the mesolect is simply thought to be the colloquial register of Standard German, so people speak it whenever they feel a colloquial register is appropriate. It’s also barely 40 years old, so people haven’t had much time to think about it. 🙂

    the pronunciation of final /g/ (fricative vs. voiceless stops)

    That isogloss goes through that small area? Awesome. 🙂

  91. @David Marjanović : I wouldn’t call the Cologne-Bonn area small, linguistically. Especially if we include Düsseldorf; many do not.

  92. David Marjanović says

    Fair point.

  93. That isogloss goes through that small area? Awesome
    I have to disappoint you, but I was trying to talk about the differences between the mesolects of Cologne-Bonn vs. Northern Germany around Oldenburg. Sorry for my sloppy proofreading.
    Especially if we include Düsseldorf
    Never lump in Düsseldorf with Cologne within earshot of a Kölner 😉

  94. Hans: “Never lump in Düsseldorf with Cologne within earshot of a Kölner”: 😉 oh I know very well not to do that, don’t you worry 🙂

  95. Mark Astolfi says

    Sorry if somebody has already mentioned these, but…worrywart, skinflint, spitfire, spoilsport, slingshot, mountebank…and Thurber asked: Why should a shattermyth have to be a crumplehope and a damplenglee?” My favorite from French is cache-sexe…

  96. Excellent examples!

  97. Mountebank is derived from a cutthroat compound in Italian, but it isn’t one in English. Worrywart isn’t one at all. It’s named after a comic character, with no worrying of warts involved. In fact, the opacity of the apparently object wart has allowed the word to change it’s meaning from “someone who bothers [worries] others excessively” to “someone who worries excessively” (c.f. British worryguts).

  98. David Marjanović says

    I’d have thought the -wart was actually a -wort; there are a few compounds in -wurzen referring to people with a quality scattered over German.

  99. Wort traditionally has a different vowel sound from wart, like word, work, world, worm, worry, worse, worth. But it has developed a spelling pronunciation too, maybe since it’s not used as often as it used to be.

  100. David Marjanović says

    Forward and foreword have been confused so often the former has effectively replaced the latter outside of edited writing.

    traditionally has a different vowel sound

    Yes; I blame people who have no vowel sound in either set, just a syllabic R with slightly different tinges.

  101. Stu Clayton says

    there are a few compounds in -wurzen referring to people with a quality scattered over German.

    Name two such, if you please ! I can’t think of a single one.

    If there are such words, I’m betting they occur only in Bavarian or Austrian dialects.

    Ringelnatz was born in Wurzen.

  102. David Marjanović says

    Indeed I can currently think of only one, and indeed it’s thoroughly dialectal, although I think I dimly remember there are others.

    Let’s spell it Z’widerwurzen. It means “contrarian jerkass” and contains zuwider in both senses, “against” and “repulsive”.

  103. Stu Clayton says

    Both Z’widerwurzen and “contrarian jerkass” are welcome additions to my vocab !

    Fancy takes flight: “Der ist mir zu wider” would work easily in print. When speaking one would have to get the last inter-word pause exactly right.

    An astrology buff might say “Der ist mir zu Widder“.

    Colloquial shenanigans.

  104. PlasticPaddy says

    A farmer that says “Kreuz Birnbaum und Hollerstauden!“ , a Deandl (his daughter) called Stasi, who “nit amal am heiligen Ostertag eine Ruh’ giebt”. What more could one ask for?
    The zuwiderwurzen is a flower:
    Eins wachst auf’m Berg,
    Da heißt’s beim Kurz’n:,
    Das Bleameln, das kenn’ i,
    – Hoaßt Z’widerwurz’n!“

  105. David Marjanović says

    …I had no idea there were ever people named Anastasia that far west. I guess we’ll have to list that name together with Ignaz as the victims of retroactively unfortunate nicknames.

    The zuwiderwurzen is a flower:

    A metaphorical one.

  106. David Marjanović says

    (Unfortunate enough that it triggers moderation!)

  107. John Cowan says

    Forward and foreword have been confused so often the former has effectively replaced the latter outside of edited writing.

    The latter is in fact a calque of Vorwort, which is a calque of praefatio; English borrowed preface in the 16C, whereas foreword didn’t land until the 19C.

  108. However, preface and foreword are not entirely interchangeable, despite being similar in meaning and ultimately having the same source. The preface to a longer work is almost always written by the author, or the principal editor(s) if the volume is a compilation. A foreword may be the same, or it may be written by someone else. Introduction is used even more broadly, since it may be either a prefatory section or the beginning of the main work itself.

    I once read a book that had all three: foreword, preface, and introduction—I think in that order. However, it wasn’t a narrative work, so it was impossible for it to also have a prologue. (Works that begin with an epilogue and end with a prologue* are almost vanishing rare.)

    * Watch out for malware at the link!

  109. I hope everyone here who’s a givethank has a great holiday. And if instead you’re a watchfootball, enjoy the games!

    I’ll be doing both.


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