Canoe wives and unnatural semantic relations

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The first extended transformational-generative grammatical study of any aspect of a language written by anyone other than Noam Chomsky was the study of nominalizations by Robert B. Lees in his MIT dissertation, published as a monograph in 1960. In it, Lees attempted, among other things, to offer a detailed treatment of noun-noun compounds. Other early studies in generative grammar followed. Part of what they were attempting to do was to give a syntax for nominal compounds that would explain what patterns of meaning were available in noun-noun compounds: tree house means "house in a tree" (a location relation), while lion king means "king who is a lion" (a predication relation), and tax collector means "collector of taxes" (a verb-object relation), and so on. I never thought such research was on the right track. It seemed to me that the semantics of such noun-noun combos was so protean that nothing could ever come of it. And I was reminded on this the other day when I saw this headline in a British newspaper:

Detective attacks jailed canoe wife who lied to sons

What, I hope you are asking yourself, is a canoe wife?

It turns out to mean (as those following stories in the popular press within the UK would know) to mean "wife of the man who pretended to have drowned while out on the ocean in a canoe".

The story involved a dishonest couple, John and Anne Darwin, of whom the lead detective in the case disapproved strongly enough to publicly call them "despicable". Facing a certain amount of debt, they faked the husband's death, making it look like a canoe outing off the Durham coast in northern England had ended in a drowning tragedy. Executing the plan involved Anne Darwin telling their two grown sons mournfully that their father had perished, and watching them go through the grief process (one of them took it especially hard). John Darwin hid out in his home town, living secretly with his wife, for four or five years, and then the couple started making plans to move overseas. On a visit to Panama the couple were stupid enough to let a property agent photograph them, and the photo was put on the web. In December 2007 John Darwin conceived of the brilliant idea of simply walking into a police station (while Anne was back in Panama) saying he had amnesia and didn't know who he was or where he had been. But he had overestimated police gullibility. Detectives rapidly suspected that he was a liar. The game was finally up when someone simply typed "John, Anne, Panama" into the Google search box and Google images came up with the Panama photo. John was charged and convicted. Then they looked into the Anne's culpability. In the end, convicted of six counts of fraud and nine of money laundering, she actually got a slightly longer sentence (six and a half years) than he did.

[This account of the Darwins' fraud was revised and corrected with the help of the Wikipedia entry after this was first posted.]

In my view, there is no sense in trying to develop a taxonomy of possible semantic relations that noun-noun compounds can express, given that one of them would apparently have to be a relation that permits N1 N2 to hold of a person x iff N2 is the name of the relation that x bears to some person y such that y was involved in an incident in which an object of the type N1 played a salient role. Define the notion "natural semantic relation" as you will, this surely isn't one.

It looks to me like a noun-noun compound N1 N2 can be formed given just about any relation between N1-type things and N2-type things that turns out to be a relevant one for the description of some situation.

Addendum: By the way, irrelevantly, Howard Jacobson wrote a column in The Independent in which he quoted a headline saying "Despicable canoe couple sent to prison" and added that it "gave one pause". But his reason for puzzling over it was idiotic: he said, "What's a despicable canoe? In fact it was the couple who were "despicable" in the judge's view on account of their deception of their sons." He's just trying (and failing) to make a stupid joke, I think. The point is not to find perversely misguided parses. The interesting thing is the noun-noun compound canoe couple, not the fact that (like any noun) it can be modified by an attributive adjective.


  1. Malte said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 6:10 am

    Something pretty similar is also seen in Swedish in the form of compound nouns. You can see some interesting/bizarre/creative examples from the print media in the blog Nakenchock ("Nude shock"; Google translation here). It's a lot of fun.

  2. John Cowan said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 7:33 am

    Ivan Derzhanski wrote a paper on nominal compounds, and I grabbed his examples for use with Lojban. You can see them here. Of course there's nothing exhaustive about the varieties of compounds; they are just a garden of interesting possibilities.

    Lojban terminology: tanru = nominal compound; seltau = modifier; tertau = head.

  3. Emma said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    The noun-noun compound is extremely common in UK headlines -particularly at the tabloid end of the spectrum. In fact the London Evening Standard excels at this with N_1, N_2, …N_k (where k is 3, 4, 5 or even 6) headlines:

    "Train Crash Rail Bosses(sic) Trial"
    "London Tory MP Sex Shock" (Though I guess that Tory is actually an adjective here)
    "Harvey Nichols Murder Pictures" (Harvey Nicks is a posh shop)
    "Mosely Nazi Orgy Victory"
    "Summer Killer Wasps Alert"

    And my favourite (sadly fake) Standard headline:


  4. Jed Davis said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    It seems to me that “canoe wife” is a bit beyond the pale, specifically because it requires having those current events in mind to make any sense of it. By contrast, if they'd written “canoe death scam wife”, then it's just the usual inference of some simple connectives.

    This is also not the same as hearing about a KIWI DOLE RORT BLUDGE PROBE as a non-Australian and needing a couple of the words explained, because those are the meanings they have in general, not just this specific news cycle.

  5. TootsNYC said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    That's not "real" English–that's "headline" English.

    Normal people don't talk or write like that.

  6. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    The classic paper is:

    Downing, Pamela. 1977. On the creation and use of English compound nouns. Language 53.4.810-42.

    (If I remember correctly, this is the paper with the wonderful "pumpkin bus" example in it.)

    Geoff writes:
    It looks to me like a noun-noun compound N1 N2 can be formed given just about any relation between N1-type things and N2-type things that turns out to be a relevant one for the description of some situation.

    That seems right, but you might want to say that there's something right in the Lees account — if the list of specific relations is understood as a list of common strategies for interpreting N-N compounds. When those strategies don't work, you search for some other relevance relation.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

    There's also Judith Levi, The Syntax and Semantics of Complex Nominals, Academic Press, 1978.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    I had a reaction similar to Geoff's just the other night when I saw the film Notes on a Scandal, in whose last scene a newspaper is shown with the headline Sex Teacher Sentenced. The teacher in question (played by Cate Blanchett) is of course not a teacher of sex but an art teacher who had an affair with a student.
    @ Arnold: does the Downing paper include a treatment of the Romance-like "verbnoun" compounds, consisting of a verb (plain form) joined to a noun that serves as its direct object (e.g. breakwater, spendthrift, spoilsport)?

  9. Theo Vosse said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    There are also people trying to attack this from another angle. A recent one: Phil Maguire, Rebecca Maguire, & Arthur Cater, 2008. Factors Influencing the Interpretation of Noun-Noun Compounds, Proceedings of Cognitive Science Conference, Washington DC. Results are not great though, and their conclusions seem unwarranted, but ok.

    I think a "statistical" approach is the only viable one. Some combinations generalize, but rarely is it a neat composition of the parts. E.g., in Dutch we have productive compounding. One of my favorite examples includes sausage. "Leverworst" is liver sausage, a sausage made of liver. But we also have rookworst, smoke sausage, which is made using smoke, not of smoke, and it's unclear whether it refers to the noun or the verb smoke. Then there is boerenworst, farmer sausage, which of course is not made of farmers, nor made by farming or burping (which are homophones with the noun in Dutch), but by farmers. However, rookwolk, smoke cloud, is a cloud make by smoke, not "using" it. Etc.

    And of course, when you think you've solved this problem, there's always German or Finnish. I think the conclusion is that noun-noun compound semantics is as difficult as semantics/pragmatics in general…

  10. Joe said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    I'd heard of that story before, but there's no way I could parse that headline.

    Then again, perhaps the inability to understand it proves that it's more an aberration than a counter-example to noun compounds being meaningful? Because I went down the list and the only thing that made sense was that the wife (for some reason) was in a canoe. Though I suppose there might be cases of ambiguity where you couldn't rule out all possible meanings.

  11. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    Theo Vosse: farming or burping (which are homophones with the noun in Dutch)

    That's interesting. Beans (bønner) and farmers are well-known homophones in Norwegian. There are similarities in the two languages, and of course connections between beans and burping.

  12. Peter said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 1:48 pm


    You cite the Australian tabloid headline:


    But, to this Australian, that sounds incorrect. Are you sure it was not:


  13. The Ridger said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

    It was clear that "canoe wife" was a meaningful compound, and given that it was a headline, enough to identify her if you had been reading the news. My first problem was trying to tell if attacks by detectives had jailed her, or if a detective had attacked her while she was in jail…

  14. majolo said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    My first thought on trying to read the headline was by analogy to a football widow, which is a noun-noun compound that seems hard to interpret in a regluar Lees-style pattern (and has the advantage of being in common use, unlike canoe wife).

  15. Barbara Partee said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    to Toots NYC who said "That's not "real" English–that's "headline" English.
    Normal people don't talk or write like that."

    I don't think that's quite right — I think what's right is that you can't talk that way without a rich shared context. Our family had the "bear towel" which was a towel that a bear had gotten hold of on a camping trip in Sequoia National Park and chewed some holes in. (Actually it was a foam pad for putting under a sleeping bag but I don't have a one-word name for that so I've told a white lie. The bear had a lot more fun with the foam pad than he ever could have had with a towel.) I suspect every family has some noun-noun compounds that no one outside the family could get right on first guess. I even put exercises in making up possible meanings for such compounds in my chapter in a cognitive science textbook (edited by our own Mark Liberman and Lila Gleitman); I should have suggested looking for examples (a) in headlines and (b) among family or close friends.

  16. George said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

    My first thought on seeing the headline was that a canoe wife must be something like a fishwife.

  17. TootsNYC said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    @ Barbara Partee

    You are right–the "rich shared context" of the daily news would make "canoe wife" and "sex teacher" clear to those *inside* the context.

    Maybe that "canoe guy" story is getting lots MORE play, more recently and more frequently, in the UK for it to be a sensible to assume a shared context. Not here in the US, though.

    But I still say, it's VERY common for headline writers (esp. ones on tabloids, where space is MUCH tighter) to do those sorts of "jamming nouns together" tactics than it is for most "real" people.

    Also, those of us who create terms like "bear towel" generally don't expect anybody ELSE to understand what we mean until we've explained it. Headline writers do.

    However, they may also try to "establish" that terminology through earlier headlines, and then rely on that later.

  18. Rubrick said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    Leaving aside the semantic issues, I hope "canoe wife" makes it into the lexicon as a generic term for any spouse who's complicit in a harebrained scheme.

  19. Richard Bell said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

    At McGuckin Hardware in Boulder, where I work, we sell a "Chamberlain one half horsepower whisper drive garage door opener." That's nine nouns in a row: ten if horsepower can be construed as two words.

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    It's hard to beat the armed forces as a source of trophy-sized complex nominals. As I recall, you can find quite a few in Tim Finin's 1980 dissertation "The Semantic Interpretation of Complex Nominals". In any case, a peek at the section headings for a random U.S. Army helicopter maintenance manual turns up items like "main landing gear shock strut service" and "tail rotor balance AVA kit installation". But some civilian sources give a good account of themselves as well: "Volume Feeding Management Success Formula Award" turned up a few years ago on the wall of a New Jersey steak house;  and you won't have to search very far in old computer manuals to find phrases like "process control block base register value".

  21. G. L. Dryfoos said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

    Detective attacks jailed canoe wife who lied to sons

    I was fine with the "canoe wife" bit. But instead of a detective attacking her while she was in jail, I thought that perhaps it was the detective's repeated attacks that resulted in the canoe wife being jailed.

    (I'm sure that the actual linguists reading this could draw it out with all the little slopey lines to show both interpretations.)

  22. marykmac said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 6:42 am

    To those who weren't sure which of "attacks" and "jailed" was the verb, there was a Yahoo headline a few years ago which combined ambiguous compound nouns and verbs to impressive effec. Animal rights activists had attacked an Alaskan girl scout group who had learnt to trap animals:

    Girl Scout beaver traps upset activists

  23. Jill said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    >Maybe that "canoe guy" story is getting lots MORE play, more recently and more frequently, in the UK for it to be a sensible to assume a shared context.

    I can confirm this from London. I am not even very good at keeping up on the news, and I understood the headline instantly because I had the context.

  24. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    TootsNYC: "That's not "real" English–that's "headline" English. Normal people don't talk or write like that."

    But in fact they do, as indicated by collections of N-N compounds from speech and informal writing (outside of headlines). Such compounds are especially common in headlines, for obvious reasons, but everyone who's studied N-N compounds in ordinary conversations has a collection of examples that cannot be interpreted without lots of information about the context.

  25. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

    Coby Lubliner: "@ Arnold: does the Downing paper include a treatment of the Romance-like "verbnoun" compounds, consisting of a verb (plain form) joined to a noun that serves as its direct object (e.g. breakwater, spendthrift, spoilsport)?"

    No. It's about N-N compounds, plus related Adj-N composites.

  26. Martyn Cornell said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    And let's not get into the fact that it was really a kayak

  27. Simon Cauchi said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 4:05 am

    "The pasture was dry over the old plague tombstones." (Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower, Flamingo, 1996, first paragraph of chapter 6). Not as bizarre as "canoe wife", but it still takes quite a few words to spell out the meaning explicitly: the tombstones of people who had died of plague.

  28. Wilson Gray said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    The first time that I heard "baby daddies" on BET (B[lack] E[ntertainment] N[etwork] for the lame). I laughed. Though I understood that the phrase clearly meant, "men who are the daddies of babies," it struck me that it could also be ambiguously understood to mean, "babies who are the daddies of babies," a ridiculous concept.

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