Killer Compounds

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 5.43.02 PMEnglish, like many other languages, abounds with compounds. Take two words and join them to create an inseparable unit, and you have a compound. There are compound verbs like undergo and overcome, compound adjectives like makeshift, compound adverbs like thereafter.

Especially abundant are compound nouns, like jumpsuit and strawberry, wristwatch and bookend. nutcracker and football. All those are noun + noun combinations, but you can have, among others, adjective + noun (software, greenhouse), noun + verb (haircut), even verb + adverb (knockout).

But hiding among the countless ordinary compound nouns are a few of a particular grammatical structure: verb + noun, as in cutthroat, spitfire, pickpocket, and, less odiously, scarecrow. More particularly, it’s a transitive verb (one that takes a direct object) followed by the direct object of the verb. A cutthroat cuts your throat, a spitfire spits fire, a pickpocket picks your pocket, a scarecrow scares crows.

We learned about them from Brianne Hughes, a collector of these daredevil words, at a “History of the English Language” conference this month at the University of British Columbia. With a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of York, she is a copy editor by day and a historical linguist by night, she says, when she goes hunting for these compounds, most of them obsolete. Along the way she makes up a few of her own, labeling herself a spit-facts and a breathe-words. You can see her in action on YouTube.

She calls such words “cutthroats,” after the best-known example. Others you may have come across are rotgut and pinchpenny. But she delves into dictionaries and obscure texts looking for more. Her count now exceeds 900 specimens.

And she has noticed something peculiar: Cutthroats clump. The words generally refer to “such topics as criminals, misers, drunks, and children’s games.” A few verbs appear again and again, including break, turn, make, lack, and kill. So do certain nouns, including water, penny, devil, and nothing. So sometimes one compound leads to another. “In one example,” she writes, “kill-priest (port wine) led to strangle-priest, strangle-goose, saddle-goose, and saddle-nag.”

Now what would be the source of so many evil words? Well, we can blame the French, who have set the example for many such collocations,  including coupe-gorge, the model for cutthroat.

And why is this kind of word both so obscure and so passionate? Maybe because it’s an opportunity for creativity — a nonce creation, a poem created by joining two words together. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for example: “Peace, good tickle-brain.”

The good news is that Brianne makes her entire collection available to us all at her website.

So be a daredevil, not a fussbudget or spoilsport, and pay a visit to the world’s largest collection of cutthroats..


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