Compound semantics

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Today's Scenes from a Multiverse:

The traditional example for this ambiguity is "German teacher" — though in the case of "Vampire Detective" there's some disagreement about whether the difference is an ambiguity or a vagueness.


  1. mike said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 2:05 am

    Unlike the example of the German teacher, however, this ambiguity can be resolved by using a mirror or a clove of garlic.

  2. Stan said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 2:06 am

    When I first heard about the film Lesbian Vampire Killers, I assumed lesbian referred to the killers, and the vampires' sexual orientation was undetermined or irrelevant. But apparently it's about killing lesbian vampires.

    [(myl) My own first guess was that the movie was about killers who were lesbian vampires. Analyzing the ambiguities would be a good mid-term exam question…]

  3. Irina said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 2:09 am

    I've always been confused about "Buffy the vampire slayer"– especially as I've never watched it because we don't have a TV. (Also, "one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater" but that becomes clear in the song.)

  4. LDavidH said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 2:34 am

    It's interesting (?) that the same ambiguity is present in Swedish, even though the nouns would be written as one word (vampyrdetektiv), but not in Albanian, where they would be separate: "detektiv vampir" (a detective who is a vampire) vs "detektiv vampirësh" (a detektive of vampyres).

  5. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    Oddly, although "vampire detective" is genuinely ambiguous, or at least vague, I don't think that it can mean what the first character thinks — "detector of vampires". I mean, a homicide detective doesn't detect homicide, right?

  6. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:09 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur: That’s a false analogy. Just because an aniseed biscuit is a biscuit that contains aniseed doesn’t mean a dog biscuit is a biscuit that contains dogs.

  7. Mr Punch said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    "Lesbian vampire killers" is misleading because "vampire killer[s]" is actually a pretty well established phrase, whereas "lesbian vampires" is not. Traditionally, vampires are stereotypically hetero, although there are of course literary and cinematic instances of "playing against type."

  8. DonBoy said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    Thus, the SNL sketch "Robot Repair" [Hulu, so there's an ad:]

  9. Toma said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    Sorta like the old joke: If fire fighters fight fire, then what do freedom fighters fight? Some expressions become ingrained enough that they're not ambiguous or are understood in context.

    [(myl) Right, and if olive oil is made from olives, what is baby oil made from?]

  10. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    @Tom S. Fox: Sure, noun compounds are ambiguous or vague. I said as much, and in fact, that's what the entry was about. What I'm saying is that I don't think "___ detective" ever means "___ detector". At least, I can't think of a case where it does — and apparently you can't, either, or else I hope you would have mentioned it?

  11. Rube said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur: You're right as far as I can think: A house detective doesn't detect houses, and a plain-clothes detective doesn't go around looking for ordinary duds.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 9:38 am

    Relating to what Ran Ari-Gur said, though different, I find the interpretation of "detective" as "one who detects" odd. My thought, reading the comic, was that someone who detects vampires would be a vampire detector, not a vampire detective. For me, the word "detective" is mono-morphemic and I've frankly before today never thought about it having a connection with the word "detect". The verb I'd use for what detectives do is investigate. And I think, as far as the ambiguity under discussion, the -ive ending really isn't parallel to the -er/-or ending.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    And just as I was reading and posting, Ran Ari-Gur posted again, wording it better than me I think.

  14. Mark Mandel said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    "Vampire detective" wouldn't be ambig./vague in speech. In the sense Jones says is correct (and who should know better?), 'detective who is a vampire', the words would be in apposition and have equal stress. In the customer's reading, 'detector of vampires', "vampire" would have the major stress, as in "fire fighter".

    But that intonation pattern isn't restricted to the customer's odd reading. I would understand it immediately as 'detective who specializes in vampire cases', in the same pattern as "homicide detective". And that's how I first read the title on the door.

  15. KeithB said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 9:58 am

    Wouldn't a "Cheating Spouse" detective detect cheating spouses?

  16. HP said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    @ Mr. Punch: Actually, "lesbian vampires" are a fairly well-established subgenre of horror, dating back (arguably) to LeFanu's Carmilla. Lesbian vampires were a staple of late 60s – early 70s European exploitation films; see e.g., Vampyros Lesbos, Daughters of Darkness, Blood Countess, etc., etc.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    What does "detect" mean here? I would say a vampire detective (the non-necessarily a vampire kind) would find all kinds of evidence related to vampires, rather than finding vampires. Just like a homicide detective does not find homicides. Are some people using a meaning of "detect" where we could say a homicide detective detects homicides? If so, is this a back formation? It's not a meaning of "detect" that I've come across before.

  18. Dan T. said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    Just seen in a tweet: "Beaten Ukrainian Gay Activist Unbowed". This clearly involves somebody who's one or more of: a Ukrainian gay person who's an activist, an activist for Ukranian gay issues, an activist for issues related to beaten Ukranian gays, and a few more combinations; but "Unbowed" will (I think) always attach to the activist regardless of how the preceding adjectives are parsed.

  19. Mark Etherton said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    @ Toma

    Cf the joke from the English comedian Harry Hill:

    "My father used to say: 'Always fight fire with fire' – and that's why he was thrown out of the fire brigade."

  20. KevinM said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    And there was the early one in which Laraine Newman played a child psychiatrist, i.e., a psychiatrist who was 6 years old.

  21. Howard Oakley said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    Ambiguities are often resolved by their context. In this case, I think the forename of 'Dracula' may be a useful contextual clue, perhaps?

    As to detectives detecting, Dorothy L Sayers' repeated intransitive and transitive use of the verb for 'to act or investigate as a detective' has reached the OED, so nearly 90 years of usage should make that a valid sense.


  22. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    Mark and I posted this one about the same time. On my blog, here.

  23. Azimuth said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    Irina, no need for confusion about "Buffy The Vampire Slayer": just start watching the series from season one, episode one, and all will become clear! (If you like lighthearted linguistic innovation, you will find many examples throughout the series. And it's darn good TV.)

  24. Jim said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

    KeithB, are "Cheating Spouse" detectives really a category, though? Also you're putting quotes around the word, which would change the reading from the more standard categories. If I call someone a "'private' detective" rather than a "private detective," I'd think a fair reading of the former would be that it's a detective who appreciates his or her privacy, but it would be hard to apply the same logic to the latter form.

  25. Sean said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    This ambiguity seems to be an interesting consequence of modern English's gradual loss of inflection, including different forms for nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Latin (Romanus carnifex "Roman butcher", Romanorum carnifex "butcher of the Romans") or even German (deutscher Lehrer, Lehrer für Deutsch) seem less prone to this sort of thing, although German has its wonderful idomatic compounds.

  26. DavidGG said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur, Ellen K. – Never having seen "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective", I can't be sure, but I always assumed Ace was out looking for pets, not that he was a pet.

  27. KeithB said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    I used quotes since it is not really a category, but then vampire detective is not really a category either, is it?

  28. Chance said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    Yes, the joke would work better with "Vampire Investigator."

  29. Chance said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

    Also "fraud investigator." In fact an amusing story could be written about a man who introduces himself to a victim of fraud as a fraud investigator and then bilks the victim further. When the victim complains, the fraud investigator could rightfully retort, "I told you what I was right off!"

  30. Erick said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    is this like big-ass sandwich vs. big ass-sandwich?

  31. ajay said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 5:20 am

    Chance: no, because the ambiguity here is that "vampire" is both a noun and an adjective; someone who is a bat and a vampire is a vampire bat, but someone who is a fraud and a bat would be a fraudulent bat, not a fraud bat.

    I am sure there were jokes in 1940s Britain about the ambiguity between (black market) trader and black (market trader)…

  32. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 9:54 am


    > […] I always assumed Ace was out looking for pets, […]

    Not necessarily. He specializes in pet-related cases; that does include cases where a pet has been stolen and must be found, but that's not what he means by the term.

  33. Mike Koplow said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 11:22 am

    You want cheese pizza we got cheese pizza, you want sausage pizza we got sausage pizza, you want mushroom pizza we got mushroom pizza, you want vegetarian pizza we got vegetarian pizza.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    detective vs. detector

    I am not familiar with US police units, but I like to read British detective novels (detective novels written by British writers and set in Britain), and the full titles of the investigators are usually Detective Sergeant, Detective Inspector, perhaps meaning "sergeant in a detective unit", etc.

  35. Chance said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

    @ ajay: A fraud is also a person who is fraudulent.

  36. Brad said,

    May 25, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

    I will challenge the example of "Buffy the Vampire Hunter" meaning "Buffy the person who hunts vampires" and counter it with "Vampire Hunter D" meaning "D, the Vampire who hunts Vampires".


    I found it slightly unnatural how the dialog in the comic was phrased. I would have expected 'Vampire detective' to be explained as ambiguous between "a detective who is vampire" and "a detective who investigates vampires".

    But, then again, one of my favorite cartoon shows/comics is Steam Detectives, where the word "steam" actually refers to "Steam City" where the story takes place.

  37. Maneki Nekko said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 2:36 am

    The Venture Brothers cartoon series has a recurring character called Jefferson Twilight, black vampire hunter.
    Reporter: So you hunt African-American vampires?
    Twilight: No, sometimes I hunt vampires in other countries.
    Reporter: Huh?

  38. Anthony said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    Mike – a nearby mall food court restaurant has several categories listed on its menu, including "vegetarians". This being near Berkeley, I kept expecting to see Soylent Green (made exclusively from vegetarians) on the menu.

  39. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

    @Anthony: And I frequently eat at a sandwich shop whose menu includes a "grilled vegetarian" sandwich. As far as I can tell, it's a bracketing paradox: the adjective "grilled" must be intended to modify the "vege-" part of "vegetarian".

  40. Ellen K. said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    Have you had (or seen) the sandwich? It could be that the sandwich is grilled. Like a grilled cheese sandwich, which does not contain grilled cheese, but, rather, contains cheese and is grilled. A grilled vegetarian sandwich could be a sandwich, for vegetarians, which is grilled. That would be my assumption, but I, of course, haven't seen the sandwich in question.

  41. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    @Ellen K.: I'm vegetarian, and it's almost their only vegetarian option, so yes, I've had it many times. As far as I can tell, it's no more grilled than any of their other sandwiches — though obviously I've never had any of their other sandwiches, so I can't say that with perfect certainty. Their menu is online at, if you want to see pictures and try to judge for yourself.

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