The Big Penis Book

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I understood that it was a

(1) [big penis] [book] 'book [about big penises]'

but it was only when it arrived that I realized it was also a

(2) [big] [penis book] 'big [book about penises]'

It's big, in both size (12.2 x 11.8 x 1.5 inches) and weight (7.1 pounds). (There's some scholarly joke to be made here about iconicity.)

The ambiguity of big penis book is a familiar one in English linguistics; little girls' school is a much more decorous textbook example. And the parsing of it in (1) illustrates some nice little facts about English morphology/syntax.

Background stuff 1: The Big Penis Book, ed. by Dian Hanson, Taschen 2008.

Background stuff 2: I realize I don't have to defend my interest in the book, but for the record: big dicks are not my thing (though they're a fetish for many gay men), but I have something of a scholarly interest in the way men's bodies, male-male relationships, and so on are portrayed in photography, film, graphic art, and writing, intended for a (primarily North American and modern) gay male audience, in the construction of an imagined world of Gayland. (I offered a sophmore seminar at Stanford on the topic in spring 2007 — short description here — but unfortunately almost no one signed up for it, so I never got to teach it.) Big dicks are clearly a significant theme in this construction, in any case.

On to morphosyntax. Expressions like big penis book, with the parsing in (1), would ordinarily be classified as noun-noun compounds, but that labeling can't be right if taken literally, because big penis in (1) certainly isn't a noun: it's a "nominal", or Nom, a noun-headed combination that isn't yet ready for the big time, where it can serve as a subject or direct object or in other functions of full NPs.

[The terminology and symbolization here are pretty much in a shambles, because of the differing theoretical commitments different linguists have. I'll distinguish N, Nom, and NP — penis, big penis, a big penis, respectively. The distinction is generally clear when the head N is a singular count noun like penis, but there are subtleties when the head is a mass noun or a plural count noun, because then we end up wanting to say that Nom and NP can be identical in form but different in category: Nom (but not NP) in Those big penises don't turn me on, NP (as well as Nom) in Big penises don't turn me on. A topic for another day.]

So: what are often referred to as noun-noun compounds (N + N) can have things other than a N as their first element.

They can of course have a n that is itself a N + N compound as first element (we've posted about any number of these over the years):

[penis book] [catalog] 'catalog of penis books'

But going beyond this, we can have Adj + N in the first slot, productively with non-predicating Adj +N combinations:

[civil engineering] [curriculum] 'curriculum for civil engineering'

but also with predicating Adj + N combinations (which is where we came into this discussion), like:

[big penis] [obsession] 'obsession with big penises'

The point is that Nom (as well as plain N) can work just fine as the first element in compounds. And, as it turns out, that Nom is mostly rotten as the second element;

[penis] [big book]

cannot mean 'big book of/about penises' or something similar. There's a structural constraint on English here, demanding that the second element of 'noun-noun compounds' be a N, not a Nom. So

[penis] [obsession] 'obsession with penises'

[penis] [magazine article] 'magazine article about penises'

are fine, but

[penis] [obsessive attention] 'obsessive attention to penises'

[penis] [lengthy article] 'lengthy article about penises'

just won't fly. The construction is Nom + N (where Nom can be just a N, or something more complex).

BUT: non-predicating Adj + N combinations work like N + N compounds. That is, it's not that N + Adj + N combinations are out in general; rather, they're out when Adj + N is predicating, as in *[penis] [big book], intended to mean 'big book of/about penises'.

So, given the non-predicating combination indigenous nudity 'nudity on the part of indigenous peoples', we can construct things like

There are publications in which breast indigenous nudity is acceptable but penis indigenous nudity is not.

and given the non-predicating combination diabetic insole (actually attested) 'insole for use by diabetics', we can construct things like

Drugstore diabetic insoles are generally superior to street vendor diabetic insoles.

One way to incorporate these observations is just to declare that non-predicating Adj + N combinations ARE Ns (and not Noms) syntactically. This would not be a very big step, since its long been known that apparent

NPposs + N

combinations (where "NPposs" stands for 'possessive NP') come in two flavors: one in which NPposs functions as a determiner (this construction is actually NPposs + Nom = NP) and one in which it is a kind of compound noun (this construction is actually Nomposs + N = N). Women's shoes can be either 'shoes belonging to women, shoes that women wear' or 'shoes intended for women to wear'. The difference here is subtle but real.

In the determiner construction, we can get things like

Women's tiny shoes amaze me.

(Compare: *Women's tiny shoes are carried in very few stores.)

In the compound construction, the possessive can co-occur with a preceding determiner, as in

This women's shoe is a best-seller.

(which would be ruled out in the other construction because the possessive IS the determiner there).

The determiner construction is parallel to predicating Adj + N, the compound construction to non-predicating Adj + N. Indeed, parallel to big penis book 'book about big penises' and the like are examples like tall men's store 'store for tall men, store that sells items meant for tall men'.

To sum up, English has the following combinatory possibilities (among many others):

(3) N = Nom [N on its own can serve as Nom]

(4) AdjP + Nom = Nom [ordinary adjectival modification, with predicational semantics]

(5) Nom = NP for plural or mass Nom ["zero determiners" for plural and mass heads]

(6) Det + Nom = NP [your classic NP]

(7) NPposs = Det [possessive determiners]

(8) Nom + N = N [ordinary "noun-noun" compounding]

(9) Nomposs + N = N [possessive compounding]

(10) Adj + N = N [non-predicating modification]

[Of course, there's a lot more to be said, in particular about which instances of Nom can serve as the first element in combination (8). What about things like [amazingly huge penis] [book]? Or [refreshing beer] [pub]? Maybe there are no structural or semantic constraints here, and it's all a matter of what people find easy to contextualize. That would fit with my (very informal) observation that the closer a Nom is to some kind of conventionalized expression, the easier it is for it to get used as the first element in a compound. It's probably not an accident that, though big penis in The Big Penis Book looks like an "open" combination, it's almost surely a stand-in for the partly conventionalized big dick (with its many phonological attractions).]

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