Lexical coupling and uncoupling

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A "short imagined monologue" by Ben Greenman at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, "I am the invisible thing that holds together the two halves of a compound word":

When I first came to town, they were all around me, the words. They waved at one another in the street and chatted at parties. I was careful then because I was a newcomer and it is not my personality to stride right into the center of things and announce myself, especially since I am invisible. But I noticed it at once: some words looked good together.

In a few rare cases, like with "sword" and "play" and "rain" and "storm," they found their way to each other, but most words didn't really know what was good for them. "Trouble" liked "coat," and "sweet" liked "bone," and "air" spent years pining for "pickle." Can you imagine?

Having spent some time, a couple of decades ago, on the natural history of complex nominals in English, I enjoyed this clever little exercise. Here's its (spoiler alert) ending:

For a while there, the seesaw balanced perfectly. We were at equilibrium, a kind of standstill. And then it ended abruptly. Two modest words, slender four-letter ones, stood near each other at a gallery opening. I liked the looks of it, and I joined them together. If I had known then the monster they would become, I would never have done it. Thinking about it now, I feel like drywall awaiting a sledgehammer. I am in a tailspin, heartsick. And I cannot even get relief from that state—to bring my hands to my mouth I would need to free them, and then "pin" would fly away from "wheel" and "out" from "fox" and "lock" from "jaw." It would be a Pandora's box, words whirling around without their other halves, angry and confused. It would be a disaster, an airpickle, the downfall of us all. Of course, it would have one silver lining: if all the other pairs came apart, those two four-letter words would come apart as well, and there would be no more monster. That thought is in my head. I am thinking of it. It is all I think about. Just imagine: face book.


  1. John Cowan said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    I wonder if the same party was responsible for joining e and mail.

  2. Mark but not that Mark said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    I don't understand Google books at all. Your whole chapter with Sproat is available. For other documents one can only see tantalizing pieces. What is the principle? Popularity, obscurity, original publication date? The U of Chicago Press, which resells SCLI books, only makes a profit on the buyers who just have to have a hardcopy of the volume? If Google is just going to scan my as-yet unwritten book, am I just donating the time and effort it takes to write it? What if I've got enough good Samaritan points already but not enough dollars to send my child to college?

  3. Grep Agni said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    Now I'm hungry for an airpickle. And that hunger will never be satisfied. Damn you, Language Log!

  4. Nik Berry said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    @Grep Agni

    I wouldn't worry. 434 Google hits so far.

  5. John F said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    And I used to think German was a silly language for compounding nouns!

    [(myl) Except for the lack of fugenelemente ("linking elements", the not-invisible things that hold together the two elements of (many) compound words), and the different orthographic conventions about spaces and hyphens, English is generally like German in this respect.]

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    @ Grep Agni – Now I'm hungry for an airpickle. And that hunger will never be satisfied

    Make do with a bit of sweetbone, then.

  7. Nick Lamb said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    "It would be a disaster, an airpickle, the downfall of us all."

    Nice, I don't think it'll catch on, but here's hoping.

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    @Mark but not that Mark: The book is in limited preview, which means the publisher has given permission for a certain number of pages from the book to be available for display. More here and here.

    [(myl) Let me add that the CSLI series doesn't pay royalties — certainly I've never gotten any.]

  9. Jim said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    Mr Greenman should take a bite off the other side of the mushroom, fast.

  10. Trond Engen said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    I think there's a difference between English and the other Germanic languages in how English often will have full stress on the second element of a compound. In that case one can analyse the first element as a noun used as an adjective. This foreigner is trying to apply this as an ortographic rule: Write compounds together if the second element has reduced stress, separate them if the second noun takes new wordstress.

    In the longer perspective I might consider even fullstresscompounds as a deserving target. But I don't know if I'll ever get there. So far it's been a onemancampaign

  11. Xmun said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    Relevant here is Calverley's poem "Forever", which begins:

    Forever; 'tis a single word!
    Our rude forefathers deem'd it two:
    Can you imagine so absurd
    A view?

    Forever! What abysms of woe
    The word reveals, what frenzy, what
    Despair! For ever (printed so)
    Did not.

    And so on for another seven stanzas.

    (NB: Imagine the second and fourth lines of each stanza indented, the fourth so deeply that "A view?" comes beneath "imagine so" and "Did not" beneath "For ever".)

  12. Faldone said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    I think this invisible thing often starts off as a hyphen and then evaporates.

  13. Jack Handey said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    Maybe in order to understand mankind we have to look at that word itself. MANKIND. Basically, it's made up of two separate words, "mank" and "ind." What do these words mean? It's a mystery and that's why so is mankind.

  14. Melissa said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    This was enjoyable to read. It reminded me of another post I stumbled upon one day: http://lucidlunacy.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/grammar-pun-grampun/

    @Mark: Perhaps a future blog post topic?

  15. John Walden said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 3:17 am

    There's never a really good moment to resurrect 'Hottentottenpotentatentantenattentat' (Attempt on the life of a Hottentot prince's aunt)
    but this will have to do. I doubt if Hottentot is very PC. And I have a very dim memory of a 'Rheinschnelldampfschiffeinbahnfahrkarte" (One way ticket on an express Rhine steamship). I'm not sure about the spelling of either.

    [(myl) Well, in English we have things like "Volume Feeding Management Success Formula Award", discussed here and here. If we followed the German orthographic convention, that would be Volumefeedingmanagementsuccessformulaaward. And a bit of poking around in the technical literature will turn up things like Processcontrolblockbaseregistervalue ("value of the base register for a block of storage associated with process-control")]

  16. a George said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    @John Walden: if JFK had been a Hottentot king, then Jack Ruby would have been the Hottentottenpotentatenattentatentätertöter. If guilt were correctly placed, that is. And very few Rhine steamboats have rails.

  17. John Walden said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 10:32 am


    Rheinschnelldampfschiffeinzelfahrschein ?

    My recollection of German is dim, as I said. A one-way street is Eine Einbahnstrasse, I think, and Autobahn is definitely motorway so I'm getting my ways mixed up. They don't have rails either, of course.

  18. a George said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    @John Walden: I do not know if you really want/need this detail, but 'einbahn' does mean 'one-way', but very literally, such as in the 'Einbahnstrasse' you mention. 'Bahn' is also used for 'trajectory' or 'course', so it is not tied to the iron horse, as in 'Eisenbahn'.

    However, I am at loss to say whether you ought to say 'Einzelfahrschein', because when you travel one-way, it is "Einzelfahrt", your voyage is in once only. Anyway, to me it sounds better than 'Einzelfahrtschein', but who knows with modern German . . .

  19. dirk alan said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    the hyphen should be extracted from womens married names. equality requires it.

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