Quasicompositionality in the comics

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "The <x> that is held by <y> is also a <y><x>, so if you go to a food truck, the stuff you buy is truck food. A phone that's in your car is a carphone, and a car equipped with a phone is a phonecar. When you play a mobile racing game, you're in your phonecar using your carphone to drive a different phonecar. I'm still not sure about bananaphones."

See Mark Liberman and Richard Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English," in Lexical Matters, Sag and Szabolcsi, Eds., 1990.

Update — How about other XY/YX English compound pairs, written with or without internal space? There's cat house and housecat; fish-bone and bonefish; index-card and card indexball game and game ball; dozens if not hundreds of others; how many can you think of within a minute or so?


  1. D-AW said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 9:29 am

    I lifeboat is not a boat that hold a boat, but a boat that is held by a boat. Still a boatboat, perhaps, but not as good for the chart as this boatboat:

  2. Shihchuan said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 10:17 am

    Of all these, carboat, boatcar and housecar seem to be able to potentially work for me. The rest doesn't because I think they're bending a bit the definition of "house" in the second column (obviously for comic reasons), and because it seems to me that duplicated words rarely successfully create new words when it's not a syntactic duplication.

  3. Rebecca said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    Barely there for me: work table /table work; music night / night music; sheet cake / cake sheet; fruit tree /tree fruit

  4. James said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

    Player piano/piano player?
    Or, hm, I guess 'player' in the first one is not a noun.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

    The 'player' in 'player piano' is a noun; it could hardly be something else. But a player piano is a piano that is a player, not a piano that contains a player, just as a houseboat is a boat that is a house (not a boat that holds a house) and a mobile home is a "car" that is a home (not a car that holds a home).

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

    They really are surprisingly hard to find, but I'm sure MYL is correct that there must be a lot of them. You can make the game even more difficult by requiring both orders to be written without a space or hyphen, as in warehouse/houseware (actually the only one of any sort I've been able to come up with in the allowed "minute or so").

  7. John From Cincinnati said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    Matrix for / language / log / compiler / x / language / log / compiler / :
    Watch your tongue! –> language! language!
    Language Log
    Phraseologist –> language compiler
    Diary syntax –> log language
    Logarithmic scale on both axes –> log log
    Woodsman –> log compiler
    C++ –> compiler language
    C++ Messages –> compiler log
    Yacc –> compiler compiler
    myl –> Language Log compiler

  8. D-AW said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 4:05 pm

    I managed to collect 2467 examples from OED3 that meet the formal criterion (XY, YX, where X and Y are both nouns and can be separated by space or hyphen). 135 of these are identical as well as chiastic, but those are all instances of onomatopoeia or reduplication, with the exception of "daughter daughter".

  9. D-AW said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

    Oh, and "spin-spin".

  10. D-AW said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 4:13 pm

    As well as, of course, "log log".

  11. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

    Horse chestnut/chestnut horse. Not a thing that holds another thing, but then neither is cat house necessarily a house that holds a cat.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 5:41 pm

    That doesn't work, because 'chestnut' is certainly an adjective in 'chestnut horse'. Also, the other meaning of 'cat house' is written as one word (or definitely should be); and wouldn't be a counterexample anyway – the question just asked for any reciprocal noun pairs.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  13. David L said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

    House work and workhouse

  14. Tom Ace said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    shotgun : gunshot

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 9:32 pm

    In quite a bit longer than a minute, all I came up with was the specialized "bird feeder" and "feeder bird", the latter being a bird that often goes to feeders.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    Are verbal nouns allowed? "Timber framing" and "framing timber". That's something like my previous example: a feeder bird feeds at bird feeders, and framing timber is used in timber framing.

  17. stephen said,

    September 8, 2018 @ 10:08 pm


    A radish horse might be a rocking horse shaped like a radish. Or a radish with legs, large enough to ride.

    Rocking horse — horse rocking doesn't quite work. Horserock would be a rock shaped like a horse.

    Speaking of rocks, the theme song of the Drew Carey show was "Cleveland Rocks!" and I wish they'd shown a scene at the rock collection at the local Natural History Museum.

    Keyboard, Boardkey
    Boardroom, Roomboard
    Bathroom, Roombath
    Seaway, Waysea
    Typewriter, Writertype
    Printout, Outprint
    Springtime, Timespring
    Punchclock, Clockpunch
    Steampunk, Punksteam
    Timepunch, Punchtime
    Bergstein, Steinberg
    Bernstein, Steinbern
    Sidewalk, Walkside.

    I checked google and there are people named Bergstein and Steinbern. I'd never heard of any, but it's possible.

    The spellcheck function just tagged Punchclock and Timepunch as being unfamiliar.

    It didn't tag the others I just typed.

  18. Goueznou said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 1:12 am

    Just as a cathouse is not a house that holds a cat, neither is a housecat a cat that holds a house. I can attest to this from personal experience with the latter.

  19. Tracy Hall said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 1:13 am

    racehorse / horse race

    cheesehead / head cheese

    offhand / handoff

    overpass / Passover

    pancake / cake pan

    housefire / firehouse

  20. Jon said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 1:15 am

    How about a triple?
    Rape-seed oil comes from Oil-seed rape.

  21. Breffni said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 5:03 am

    There's peat moss and moss peat, but they're the same thing. It's a moss (sphagnum) that forms peat, it's peat made of moss.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 7:35 am



    [(myl) fixed nwo.]

  23. Peter S. said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 10:40 am

    The only one I can think of is well water and a water well.

    I also came up with trout stream and brook trout, which comes close, since stream and brook are synonyms (so why don't we use the same word here?).

  24. Stephen said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 11:35 am

    Cloud burst burst cloud
    Crowd sourcing sourcing crowd
    Strawberry berry straw
    Rainbow bowrain
    Weatherman man weather
    Bartender tender bar
    Sportscaster caster sport
    News man man news
    Air line line air
    Moonlit lit moon
    Moonlight light moon
    Sunlight light son

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    Rebecca: Also "tree nut" and "nut tree".

    Breffni: Speaking of peat moss, some people refer to Portulaca grandiflora as "moss rose" and some as "rose moss". (I call it "portulaca".)

    Tracy Hall: Most of your examples are excellent, but I don't think "off" and "over" are nouns.

    You recite "slam poetry" at a "poetry slam".

    "sideburn" and "burnside"

    "We'll meet beside the dusky glen, on yon burnside,/ Where the bushes form a cozie den, on you burn-side:/ Though the broom knowes be green,/ Yet there we may be seen;/ But we'll meet—we'll meet at e'en, down by yon burn-side."
    —Robert Tannahill

    "Now Davie did each lad surpass,/ That dwelt on this burn-side"
    —Somebody else, probably

  26. AG said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 8:08 pm

    I'll bite – here's what I came up with in around a minute:

    pipe tobacco / tobacco pipe
    lip wax / wax lips

    …hm. Harder than I thought.

  27. Rebecca said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

    Elsewhere in the news:

    A chair umpire sits in an umpire chair.

  28. stephen said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 10:44 pm

    Fires tone tone fires
    Fire stone stone fire
    Fi restone restone fi
    Fir estone
    I googled estone and it's a tech firm. It's also the Italian term for Esonia.

    Wiktionary also has irestone, any very hard rock. I would have guessed a connection with Ireland.

    Firebird bird fire. Irebird, not in wiktionary, alas.

    Alas, Al as, as Al.

    Fi, rebird

    Eric Stonestreet, an actor, stone street, street stone.

    Kenneth Branagh, bran agh, does that count?

    Barbara Stanwick, stan wick wick stan.


  29. ajay said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 5:26 am

    Barnacle goose / goose barnacle is an interesting pair; the one was thought in the middle ages, based on a similarity in their shape and markings, to hatch from the other.

    Propellor aircraft / aircraft propellor.
    Sea salt/ salt sea.
    Truck farm/ farm truck, though this relies on two different definitions of truck; a farm truck is a motor vehicle used on a farm. A truck farm is one which grows produce intended to be sold – "truck" in the sense of trade – rather than eaten by the farmer.
    Power grid/ grid power, as opposed to locally generated power.
    Fish stock/ stockfish.

  30. Ursa Major said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 7:26 am

    A ham sandwich contains sandwich ham.
    A werewolf is the same thing as a wolfman (this is a bit like Peter S.'s brook-trout-stream with added archaism).

  31. D-AW said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 9:23 am

    I've posted my (uncurated) list of bidirectional compound pairs here:


  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

    D-AW: Very nice!

    There's a class of pairs such as "green olive" and "olive-green", in which "green" is an adjective. I imagine those will disappear if you curate the list.

    I don't know how we all missed "butt-head" and "headbutt".

  33. Jonathon Owen said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

    They don't really fit the "x that holds y" formula, but surely Batman and Man-Bat deserve a mention here.

  34. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

    You use a washing machine to do your machine washing.
    Sex magic is magic sex.
    And then there's the titmouse.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 3:56 pm

    Jonathon Owen: I don't think the "x that holds y" is required. Anyway, you reminded me of Mothman and The Man-Moth.

  36. Walter Underwood said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

    The standard example for the importance of phrase matching in search engines is the pair "venetian blind" and "blind Venetian"

  37. Emily said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 7:05 pm

    Birdsong/songbird is the most obvious for me.

  38. Chester Draws said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

    I wanted to do "Language Log" cf "Log Language", but it doesn't really work.

    But you can create a whole bunch of comprehensible ones that way, even if not in dictionaries: "style article" cf "article style" or "fashion police" cf "police fashion".

  39. Brett Dunbar said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

    Without / Outwith

    Setup / Upset

  40. Marc said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 5:20 am

    Earlier today, I saw "housecar" used in the wild.


    I was renewing my driver's license on the California DMV website and saw the above. Not sure if housecar is actually used colloquially, or if this is just an example of bureaucratese.

  41. Nicki said,

    September 21, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    Sheet cake, cake sheet
    Swim night, night swim
    Corner table, table corner
    Glass eye, eyeglass(es)
    camera phone, phone camera
    Ring finger, finger ring

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