"Seedy Customer"

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Bizarro for 8/14/2022:

Ah, complex nominals in English….

For more than you probably want to know about this, see Liberman and Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English", Lexical Matters 1992. A relevant quotation:

Consider hair oil versus olive oil. Ordinarily, hair oil is oil for use on hair, and olive oil is oil derived from olives. But if the world were a different way, olive oil might be a petroleum derivative used to shine olives for added consumer appeal, and hair oil might be a lubricant produced by recycling barbershop floor sweepings.

Our conclusion about this problem:

As several writers have noted — e.g.; Dowty (1979) — the facts are consistent with a linguistic rule of argument-argument compounding that contributes only a vague 'connected-with' predicate, the more specific meanings arising from lexicalization and from the usual contextual circumscription of linguistically vague expressions. On this view, there is no well-defined hierarchical categorization of such examples, since a given form may have analogical connections in many directions.


Words and fixed phrases easily acquire special meanings; utterances are always interpreted in context; and analogy with fixed expressions is a powerful determinant of everyday phraseology. So the mechanisms required by the connected-with theory are in any case available. By the nature of this theory, it cannot be disproved by positive examples, since (by some argument or another) it licenses any compound in any meaning. To show that this theory is wrong, we must show that some meaning relations are systematically excluded, and that some alternative hypothesis will distinguish those that occur from those that don't. This is nearly impossible to do without a precise account of such meaning relations, which no one can at present provide.

Note that this is entirely consistent with the complex, diffuse, and contextually-bound patterns that emerge from more recent "deep learning" approaches.

Dan Piraro's joke raises the question of where the relevant meanings of seedy come from. The OED gives glosses

3.a. Originally: impecunious, poor (obsolete). Now: having a run-down or dilapidated appearance, esp. in dress or decor; shabby, squalid.
   b. Morally dubious, disreputable.

with citations back to 1725, but without any indication of the metaphor involved — unless sense 7 gives a clue:

7. Of wool: not cleared of adhering seeds.

But it seems more likely that the source is the phrase (and concept) "go(ne) to seed" or "run to seed", which the OED glosses as

a. Of a plant: to produce seed (often resulting in the cessation of flowering and growth).
b. figurative. To become habitually unkempt, shabby, or ineffective; to let oneself go.



  1. Bloix said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 8:22 am

    Garden plants go to seed, or bolt, when they haven't been harvested in time – they flower and start to produce seeds, and the edible parts stop growing and become woody and bitter. Plants will also go to seed if they are short of water – the plant knows that it may soon die and rushes into the reproductive stage. Many garden plants do this: herbs, the cabbage family (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc), lettuces, etc.
    So a garden that isn't cared for – not watered, not harvested – will become seedy, meaning it's been abandoned and left to fall into ruin.

  2. Bloix said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 8:37 am

    PS- we've had fun with noun phrases before, e.g.,
    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2842 (fire department)
    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=12221 (internet hotel)

  3. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 10:06 am

    Are the Girls Scout cookies make with real Girl Scouts?

  4. Cervantes said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 11:04 am

    What kind of wood is your woodstove made of?

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 11:07 am

    Alaskan Troll King Salmon, caught by the king of the Alaskan trolls.

  6. wanda said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

    There's also baby oil, which as far as I can tell is used to make your skin feel like a baby's.
    Birdseed, when planted, ought to produce bird of paradise.

  7. David L said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    So a garden that isn't cared for – not watered, not harvested – will become seedy, meaning it's been abandoned and left to fall into ruin.

    Except that I have never heard an unkempt or untended garden described as 'seedy.'

  8. Robert Carroll said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 2:41 pm

    The old Lonnie Donegan song "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor" has the line "If tin whistles are made of tin, what do they make fog horns out of?"

  9. AntC said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 4:24 pm

    the complex, diffuse, and contextually-bound patterns that emerge

    I think applies to vast areas of language; such that any simplistic attempt to explain lexical recombination using a single underlying mechanism is doomed to fail, or to end up so abstract as to explain nothing. Chomsky/MERGE I'm looking straight at you.

  10. JPL said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 6:20 pm

    I don't think I would say that "connected with" is part of the meaning expressed by such "noun-noun" combinations, at least not directly. In the differentiation of the nominal syntactic schema into "head-modifier", a nominal, as opposed to an adjectival, in that first position expresses a differentiation of the category indicated by the head nominal (ie, a subcategorization); that's all that is expressed directly. The reasons for the subcategorization are not included in the meaning directly expressed, but the inferential possibilities for relevant reasons (including relations between instances of the subcategories) are wide open and are determined by the nature of the objects interacted with and referred to. Innovations expressed syntactically like this often have lexical consequences, ie, new lexical items. Anyway, that's what I would say is going on here. Internal differentiation (subcategorization) is a process that applies (and has to apply) in principle to any nominal category, and it's all about allowing nominal categories to hook onto the world in an (increasingly) accurate way.

  11. Viseguy said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 7:11 pm

    Note that the cartoon wouldn't work if the setting were a pet shop.

  12. Viseguy said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 7:32 pm

    But … it would still work if the setting were neutral/unidentified.

  13. AntC said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 11:01 pm

    birdseed cake — birdseed compressed into cake form (for birds)

    seed cake — cake flavoured with caraway seed (for humans)

    cattle cake — not cattle compressed into cake form

    birdcage Walk — street in City of Westminster (and other cities), location of the Royal Menagerie and Aviary.

    birdcage scaffolding — not for caging birds

  14. Brett said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 11:33 pm

    I always found it a bit peculiar that Hamlet does not seem to distinguish plants that had shot and gone to seed from one that were actually rotten in his conceit about the poor state of the kingdom.

    Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
    That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
    Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

  15. Peter Grubtal said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 2:23 am

    AntC : I really appreciate your Chomsky/MERGE insight.
    I might try to pass it off as my own, if I can get away with it.

  16. David Deden said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 3:16 am

    Bloix, David L

    …"gone to seed"?

  17. EmilyPigeon said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 9:02 am

    They'll grow into goose trees, of course:

    On a related note, I remember hearing about people taking "horse paste" (ivermectin) for COVID and thinking the term referred to some sort of ground horse meat. It's paste FOR horses, not paste OF horses.

  18. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 12:33 pm

    The joke in this cartoon is one that would not have been successful in, say, the early to mid 1800s (before the U.S. Civil War), a time when we already had dictionaries, but also a time when gardeners had to produce not only vegetables, fruits, and flowers, but the seeds to grow them the following year if the plants were annuals. Knowledge about seed production and seed saving was far more widespread, a fact to bear in mind when looking at historical citations.

    The following is an excerpt from “The Organic Seed Grower,” by John Navazio, published by Chelsea Green Publishing:

    Trade in seed has been a key component in the spread of crops since very early in the domestication process. Seed of a promising crop has probably been a large enticement in many bartering situations. The commercial sale of seed, however, didn’t become commonplace in North America and Europe until the second half of the 19th century, and the seed trade of that era consisted almost entirely of small packets of vegetable, flower, or herb seed that served as starter packets for future seed-saving activity. The growing and saving of farm and garden seed was as much a part of any agricultural pursuit as was working the soil and planting in the spring. With the advent of commercial seed companies, farmers and gardeners bought seed of specialty and hard-to-find items. …


    Feeding wild birds is apparently not documented until the mid 1800s, and commercially packaged bird seed arrived even later (along with a couple of other products with similarly ambiguous names, cat litter and dog food):

    Nature lovers and book authors promoted feeding birds as early as 1845, when Henry David Thoreau offered corn and bread crumbs to the birds at his Walden Pond paradise. In the 1890s, Mrs. E. B. Davenport fed birds year-round using suet, sunflowers, finely cracked corn, hemp, buckwheat, nutmeats, and cornbread in her own handmade feeders. Those encouraging words and stories in the media were the grassroot beginnings of today's wild bird feeding industry….

    In the 1860s, the Engler family's great grandfather started Knauf & Tesch (now Kaytee). They began pioneering the industry in the feed business, operating a general store for local dairy farmers. William Knauf (grandfather) fed racing pigeons, and sometimes personal interests frequently spill over into business. He noticed pigeons in the community around him and he started thinking about how to feed these wild birds. …

    Supermarkets were smaller in those days, and adding bird seed was a real challenge. "Who needs bird seeds?" grocers asked. "Most pet items start out this way. Cat litter faced that same initial attitude — people were used to ripping up newspapers or using sand. And dog food — canned food was introduced in the 30s and faced that same sales resistance. Dogs naturally eat table scraps — who needs special dog food! But now pets have become part of the family."


  19. Bloix said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 1:34 pm

    Except that I have never heard an unkempt or untended garden described as 'seedy.' -David L.

    Although you may be unfamiliar with it, the phrase seedy garden, used literally, was once common and is still in use. Here are examples found using google ngram – these are from the 20th century:

    We have too many dilapidated farms and seedy gardens. – Charles Montgomery Skinner, Little Gardens: How to Beautify City Yards and Small Country Spaces (1904)

    a pale pink, dilapidated, but quite enchanting villa, in a seedy garden on the edge of the lake – Ruth Mayhew Head, A History of Departed Things (1918)

    that great battered house and seedy garden – Charles Reade, Foul Play: The Story of the Ship Proserpine (1924)

    Isola Madre was a splendid old-fashioned garden, rather English in type, but Isola Bella was a fraud down to the I5 lire they got out of Will for entrance to the very seedy garden. – David Randall-MacIver, Letters from Abroad (1934)

    pacing up and down a seedy garden in Bayswater – John Bingham, The Tender Poisoner (1953)

    Her divorced mother was a municipal employee in Los Angeles and they lived in a ramshackle wooden house with a seedy garden in front. – Jane Forster, An UnAmerican Lady (1980)

    And some 21st C examples (although nowadays, in certain circles, seedy gardens are trendy – people who don't need the veggies let their gardens go to seed to attract birds):

    a trip down the garden path with scissors can quickly make a seedy garden respectable again.

    Please show consideration for your neighbors and your community by cleaning up your seedy garden beds.

    the suspect list grows like weeds in a seedy garden. https://www.aleighkdean.com/mystery-in-whiskey-valley-series.html

  20. Chas Belov said,

    August 18, 2022 @ 11:34 pm

    @Robert Carroll: ¡Thank you! For all the years of listening to that song since I was a kid, I always heard (and still hear) that line as "what do they make fuggles out of" which never made any sense at all.

  21. DJL said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 4:24 am

    This reminds me of the time I started gardening, read about "tomato feed" for plants, and proceeded to smash the fresh tomatoes I had at home into a purée in order to then "feed" it to my new plants.

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