A rare recursive agentive

« previous post | next post »

Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Good luck to Democrats in the upcoming Georgia runoff elections, and to the Google Sheets SREs in the current run-on elections."

Agentive compound nouns are common, both as fixed expressions like shock absorber or rocket launcher, and as nonce formations like cheese supplier or pottery collector. And since the X in X VERB+ER can itself be a compound, as in ski lift operator, recursive agentive compounds are obviously available and easy to make up. Examples like coffee maker collector don't occur very often in the real world, and relevant search techniques are not easily available, but commenters may be able to find some naturally-occurring cases. (And no, "quicker picker upper" doesn't count…)

Oh, in case you're wondering: "What is Site Reliability Engineering (SRE)?"

Update — It occurs to me that yesterday's news provides another example of a (politically-relevant) recursive agentive compound, namely lawn fertilizer supplier:

Mulch will come of this.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 8:55 am

    Well, various possibilities come to mind, but the one I prefer is the first to occur to me — a prostitute who actively seeks business only from members of the legal profession who have not been called to the bar would be a solicitor solicitor. And if you will excuse the audible groan, one who serves coffee only to members of the legal profession who have been called to the bar would be a barrister barista.

  2. Roscoe said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 9:00 am

    Dr. Seuss gave us a classic example in "Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?":

    Out west near Hawtch-Hawtch
    there’s a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher.
    His job is to watch…
    is to keep both his eyes on the lazy town bee.
    A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.

    Well… he watched and he watched.
    But, in spite of his watch,
    that bee didn’t work any harder. Not mawtch.

    So then somebody said,
    "Our old bee-watching man
    just isn’t bee-watching as hard as he can.
    He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawtcher!
    The thing that we need
    is a Bee-Watcher-Watcher!"


    The Bee-Watcher-Watcher watched the Bee-Watcher.
    He didn’t watch well. So another Hawtch-Hawtcher
    had to come in as a Watch-Watcher-Watcher!
    And today all the Hawtchers who live in Hawtch-Hawtch
    are watching on Watch-Watcher-Watchering-Watch,
    Watch-Watching the Watcher who’s watching that bee.
    You’re not a Hawtch-Watcher. You’re lucky, you see!

  3. Cervantes said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 9:15 am

    This seems pretty easy. For every shock absorber, there' a shock absorber manufacturer, and therefore shock absorber manufacturer investors, and shock absorber manufacturer investment analysts, and shock absorber manufacturer investment analyst ratings . . .

  4. John from CIncinnati said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 10:28 am

    When MYL goes into statistical mode and posts a log-log graph in this forum he assumes the role of a Language Log log log logger.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 10:35 am

    There's a well-known example in Spanish: a windscreen (en-GB) / windshield (en-US) is a parabrisas (wind-stopper), and a windscreen wiper is a limpiaparabrisas (wind-stopper-cleaner).

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 11:19 am

    Right now on TV I'm watching footage of ballot counters and ballot count observers, who presumably have ballot count observer supervisors…

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    I think the idea is to find examples that are in use. I did find "coffee maker manufacturer" and "shock absorber manufacturer", based on one of Cervantes's suggestions. I didn't find any at COCA with "analyst", though.

    People who search for the presumably extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker are "(Ivory-billed) woodpecker hunters". "We did meet another woodpecker hunter who said he heard kent calls on the Appalachacola River." (Kent is an imitation of one of the Ivory-bill's calls.)

    I assume "Middendorff's Grasshopper-Warbler" doesn't count, since it doesn't warble grasshoppers and grasshoppers don't hop grass. This is getting into woodchuck territory.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 11:45 am

    Roscoe quoting Dr. Seuss: A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.

    Friedrich Rückert apparently disagreed: One of the songs I'm learning to sing at present is the third of Mahler's Rückert-lieder, which includes these lines:

    Bienen, wenn sie Zellen bauen,
    Lassen auch nicht zu sich schauen –
    Schauen selbst auch nicht zu.

    (Bees, when they build cells, also do not allow themselves to be watched – do not even watch themselves.)

  9. Terpomo said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 1:45 pm

    TV Tropes has https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SerialKillerKiller

  10. Rachael Churchill said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 2:16 pm

    Smoothie Maker Maker Maker Maker:

  11. Rachael Churchill said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 2:42 pm

    There's the "Smoothie Maker Maker Maker Maker" meme. I tried linking it here but I think it got spam-filtered, so you'll have to Google it.

  12. Alexander Browne said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

    In the 80s animated series "Snorks" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snorks), the eponymous creatures (basically underwater Smurfs) are often threatened by the much larger Snork-Eaters. They often are saved by a Snork-Eater Eater, which are tiny fish with huge mouths to eat the Snork-Eaters.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 3:02 pm

    Terpomo: That TVTropes article also mentions wife-basher bashers.

    Here's a poem called "Killing the Cicada Killer Killer". And this blogger confesses, "I am a Cicada Killer Killer, and a have the empty cans of Raid to prove it." (Cicada killers are big wasps of the genus Sphecius and related genera.)

  14. David Morris said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 3:54 pm

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  15. jeffe said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 4:02 pm

    I’ll have to include this cartoon in our next Computer Science Department faculty meeting minutes, which will be posted to our Computer Science Department faculty meeting minutes archive server, assuming our latest Computer Science Department faculty meeting minutes archive server administrator candidate accepts the job. We’re a bit constrained by the current Computer Science Department faculty meeting minutes archive server administrator compensation policies, but I’m sure we can fix those at the next Computer Science Department faculty meeting minutes archive server administrator compensation policy committee meeting, right after we approve last week’s minutes.

  16. Tim Rowe said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 4:03 pm

    I'm sure "helter skelter" and "teeter totter" must be examples. Just give me a moment to track down the meanings of what must be the root verbs… :)

  17. Dara Connolly said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 4:33 pm

    There are power generation engineering consultants and there are renewable and fossil-fuel power generation consultants (both real-world examples).

  18. Dara Connolly said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 4:54 pm

    An interesting multi-compound example I came across somewhere on the internet:
    the The American Heritage Dictionary "Indo-European Roots Appendix"

  19. Tim Leonard said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 4:54 pm

    Google provides more than a dozen instances of "poll watcher watcher", going back at least as far as 1964.

  20. Emily said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

    To create a 3d printer, you need a 3d 3d printer printer…

  21. Dara Connolly said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 5:10 pm

    There are (real) anti-missile missiles, and (hypothetical) anti-anti-missile-missile missiles.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 9:06 pm

    I don't know if this is supposed to be solely humor, but I (as the other commenters) don't think that we have any grammatical problem with recursive agentive: they are not more rare than the contexts calling for them are.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 10:28 pm

    Here's one where the first noun of the compound is also agentive.

    "For instance, the Hummingbird Feeder Cleaner and the Bird Feeder Cleaner have different goals so are made up of different natural Enzymes. The hummer feeder cleaner has enzymes targeting bacteria which grow in a sugar water environment […]"

  24. AB said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 4:20 am

    This made me think of this wee tongue-twister:

    I'm not a pheasant plucker,
    I'm a pheasant plucker's son,
    I sit here plucking pheasants,
    'Til the pheasant plucker comes.

    Turn's out there's an entire song: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~mentor01/song.htm

  25. Jack said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 2:43 pm


  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 7:16 pm

    I guess I'm not clear on what the limits of "agentive noun" are. Is "repellent", as in "woodpecker repellent", an agentive noun? What about a noun converted from a verb, such as "cover"?

  27. Jeremy F said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 5:49 pm

    My favourite job title: a Saggar Maker's Bottom Knocker. Has its own song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKdTIrjdo8

  28. Stephen Goranson said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 3:40 am

    Who will guard the guards themselves?
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  29. Robert Coren said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 10:44 am

    Years ago, my husband found a reference – maybe in the page quoting mostly humorous ads in Consumer Reports – to what we both remember as a "drip spoon plate cleaner holder", although we're not exactly sure (and I think there might have been a "cover" in there somewhere as well) and a quick search didn't turn up any online references.

RSS feed for comments on this post