The quasi-compositionality of English compounds

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Today's Frazz:

Snowpants exemplifies a common case, where both elements of the compound retain their basic meaning, but the combination has an idiomatic aspect — the meaning is not entirely compositional, in that the reference is not to pants composed of snow (as in snowdrift, snow shower, snow bridge), and the morpheme choice is conventionalized, so that the first element is snow rather than blizzard, ice, etc., and the second element is pants rather than trousers, britches, etc.

For other examples of the quasi-compositional meaning, compare olive oil and hair oil, or fog bank and fog horn — really almost any English noun compounds at all.

And for the lexicalization, you could refer to "blizzard britches" and hope to be understood, even though your listeners probably never heard that sequence before, but they've probably already got snowpants in their mental lexicon, at least if they grew up in the northern parts of the U.S.

Peacoat is another common case, where both elements are recognizable English words, but the first one is used in a way that is mostly unconnected with its normal meaning. The OED's etymology and citations for pea-jacket:

Origin uncertain; apparently < pee n.1 (although this apparently did not survive after the 17th cent.) + jacket n. It has been suggested that this word may be borrowed from, or formed after, Dutch pijjakker, pijjekker ( < pij (see pee n.1) + jakker , jekker , diminutive of jak (Middle Dutch jacke ; < French jacque : see jacket n.)), with the second element assimilated to jacket n., but this is apparently only attested much later (1843), as are corresponding formations in other Germanic languages. The alternative etymology proposed in quot. 1840 is not supported by the evidence (compare later pilot cloth n.).

1717   Inventory in M. Spufford Great Reclothing of Rural Eng. (1984) 218   2 Pea Jacquetts 10s.
1757   Mem. Princ. Trans. Last War 8   The Consumption..made of their coarse Woollens by the Men employed in the Fishery, reckoning for each a Blanket, Watch Coat, Rug, Pea-Jacket, etc.
1840   F. Marryat Poor Jack xxii. 153   A short P-jacket (so called from the abbreviation of pilot's jacket) reached down to just above his knees.

The earliest OED citation for pea-coat is from 1790:

1790   Pennsylvania Packet 4 Jan. 2/2   There are now lodged in the said Office..1 pea coat;..1 coatee [etc.].

So we don't know where pea in peacoat comes from, except it's not any current meaning of the regular word pea.  Similar developments are common, sometimes by retention of an otherwise obsolete measning, and sometimes in the form of a folk etymology or the more sporadic case that we've named eggcorns.

For more on the quasi-compositionality of English compound nominals, see Liberman & Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English", in Sag and Szabolsci, eds., Lexical Matters 1992.



  1. languagehat said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 9:56 am

    It would probably be useful to point out that "pee n.1" is defined as "a coat of coarse cloth worn by men, esp. in the 16th century."

  2. bratschegirl said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 11:35 am

    "Coatee?" Is the parent struggling to wrestle an unwilling small child into outerwear suitable for the conditions the "coater," and said small child the "coatee?"

  3. Mark P said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    It's been quite cold recently. Sometimes I wish we had a fireplace, and then remember the place where we have our fire is a wood stove.

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

    @bratschegirl: The OED defines the relevant sense of coatee as "A close-fitting coat with short tails, chiefly military." (It also gives a later sense, "A woman's short coat.")

  5. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    (Oh, and I should add: it explains the -ee in coatee as having a "diminutive force"; it's apparently not related to the -ee of words like employee.)

  6. Homer said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 1:56 pm

    Like "goatee".

  7. mollymooly said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

    Or bootee.

  8. David Morris said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

    I live in a part of Australia which often gets temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade, rarely gets temperatures below zero and never gets snow, so these words are not in my lexicon. If I ever heard 'peapants', I would assume the speaker said 'pee-pants' (for babies or the elderly).

  9. Martha said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 8:03 pm

    But…people say "snow jacket."

  10. Lazar said,

    January 20, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

    @Martha: Maybe that depends on your dialect? In my case (from New England), it's not really part of my lexicon – I'd say "winter coat", or maybe "winter jacket" if it's shorter.

  11. Bloix said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 1:06 am

    A snow jacket is a kind of ski jacket – not the same as a winter coat.

  12. John Rohsenow said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 3:36 am

    Coming from an old Navy family and from New England (NE USA), to me
    a "pea jacket" is a short dark heavy woolen coat worn by sailors.

  13. David P said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 9:30 am

    @homer, @molymoly: Or the diminuitive for a Trump supporter – Trumpee. Oh. Sorry.

  14. Andrew Usher said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 11:06 am

    David Morris:

    That was exactly the pun in the cartoon – "pee pants" would be the same thing here …

    I realised I'd forgotten 'snow pants'. Not what the thing is, but the word for it was lost to me for years (because I never needed it) until this brought it back. I think my memory is strange though.

    k_over_hbarc at

  15. SlideSF said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

    I think the term blizzard trousers or even blizzard pants in inapropos as the purpose of snow panrs is not to protect you from the stuff falling from the sky, but rather to protect your regular pants as you trudge through masses of it heaped up on the ground.

  16. Catanea said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 4:29 pm

    When I was little, it was a snowsuit. A rather formal one with trousers and a coat and a matching hat in wool. Later infants snowsuits were hooded padded nylon jackets and equally padded snowpants.

  17. Alyssa said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

    I'm not sure that a snow jacket is any more associated with skiing than snow pants are. They're both ski wear – I live in a place with frigid winters and it's still pretty rare for people to wear snow pants outside of the ski slopes.

  18. chris said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

    to protect your regular pants as you trudge through masses of it heaped up on the ground.
    Which also explains the rarity of snowcoats/snowjackets: if the snow is more than waist-deep you probably wouldn't be trying to trudge through it at all.

    But "waist-deep" means something different to a small child, and/or you can't necessarily count on them remaining upright while trying to move through snow, thus the full-body snowsuit is more common.

  19. Jim said,

    January 23, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

    Is a "pea coat" worn to deal with a "pea soup fog"?

    Does a "pea soup fog" have bits of ham floating in it?

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