Gun oil

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In "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun  Phrases in English" (Sag & Szabolsci, Eds., Lexical Matters, 1992), Richard Sproat and I discussed the semantic ambiguity or vagueness of English noun compounds:

We now turn to N0 compounds where a paraphrase links the two words in the compound with a predicate not implicit in either one. We are limiting this category to endocentric compounds, so that their English paraphrase will be something like 'an N1 N2 is an N2 relative-clause-containing-N1,' e.g., 'an ankle bracelet is a bracelet that is worn on the ankle,' or 'rubbing alcohol is alcohol that is used for rubbing'. The range of predicates implied by such paraphrases is very large. Since this type of compound-formation can be used for new coinages, any particular compound will in principle be multiply ambiguous (or vague) among a set of possible predicates.

Consider hair oil versus olive oil. Ordinarily hair oil is oil for use on hair, and olive oil is oil derived from olives. But if the world were a different way, olive oil might be a petroleum derivative used to shine olives for added consumer appeal, and hair oil might be a lubricant produced by recycling barbershop floor sweepings.

We go on to discuss the wide range of relationships involved in such cases, and the difficulty of automating their analysis.

Among these analytic difficulties is the referential vagueness of the individual words involved in such compounds — and it's this problem that apparently came up in a Georgia Walmart a little while ago:

It seems that "gun oil" is a brand name for "personal lubricant", presumably based on the long-standing (at least since the 1930s) U.S. military distinction between a rifle and a gun.



  1. Richard Sproat said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    No doubt had we known of this product at the time we wrote that paper, we would have used that example.

  2. chris said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 9:18 pm

    It gets even worse when the head noun is polysemous or a homophone: consider a baseball bat and a fruit bat, or a dance club and a golf club, or a riverbank and a blood bank, or a trick shot and a flu shot, or a field goal and a life goal, or a lawsuit and a business suit, or a bass line and a foul line (or even a bass line and a baseline).

    P.S. No mention of baby oil? I don't know if anyone has ever *actually* misunderstood it by accident, but the humor value of misunderstanding it on purpose relies on the fact that this type of construction is slippery. Syntax can't tell you that it isn't directly analogous to whale oil.

  3. Adam F said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 4:14 am


    Even the compound "golf club" itself is polysemous: "please pass me that golf club" vs "I'll see you at the golf club this evening".

  4. ajay said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 6:22 am

    My favourite is the observation that you can buy a strawberry smoothie, which is a smoothie made from liquidised strawberries, or a banana smoothie, which is a smoothie made from liquidised bananas, or various others.
    There is also, in the UK, a product called "Innocent Smoothies".

    An unnerving thought.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

    The Liberman & Sproat piece discusses compounds of the form [[A N] N] but did not (on quick skim) stress the ambiguity such compounds can cause when analyzing the string of words as [A [N N]] would yield a rather different meaning. I just saw an in-the-wild example in an internet headline: "[Female Celebrity] Undergoes Third Breast Augmentation," where I'm pretty sure on pragmatic grounds that [A [N N]] rather than [[A N] N] was intended. Interestingly enough, another site had the more colloquial headline "[Female Celebrity] Gets Third Boob Job" and that didn't strike me as having the same ambiguity, maybe because the more non-compositional nature of the [N N] piece blocks an [[A N] N] reading?

  6. Robot Therapist said,

    October 23, 2015 @ 3:33 am

    Or, indeed, "Robot Therapist", which is one of the reasons I like the name

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