Semi-compositional compounds of the week

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I've previously written more than once about the problem of compound words whose meaning is partly but not entirely related to the meanings of their parts, often referring back to a passage in my 1992 chapter with Richard Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English":

We now turn to N0 compounds where a paraphrase links the two words in the compound with a predicate not implicit in either one. We are limiting this category to endocentric compounds, so that their English paraphrase will be something like 'an N1 N2 is an N2 relative-clause-containing-N1,' e.g., 'an ankle bracelet is a bracelet that is worn on the ankle,' or 'rubbing alcohol is alcohol that is used for rubbing'. The range of predicates implied by such paraphrases is very large. Since this type of compound-formation can be used for new coinages, any particular compound will in principle be multiply ambiguous (or vague) among a set of possible predicates.

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.

Today's examples come from a Xeet due to Dr. Laura Grimes and Dead Soul Poetry:

So it's not 2000 years from now, and I do understand the difference between "butt dial" and "booty call". But the hermeneutic implications of the distinction are not yet clear to me — perhaps a commenter can help me out?



  1. Roy Sablosky said,

    September 13, 2023 @ 8:46 pm

    I think the idea is that there could be any number of idioms, peculiar to the time and place that each part of the Bible was written, of which we are unaware. I remember seeing one translation of the Song of Solomon that referred to "the hills of spices," and another that referred to "the fragrant hills." Who's right? It's tempting to think that the second translator corrected the first one's howler, but I don't know, and we might never know.

  2. Phillip Helbig said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 12:27 am

    Tangentially related: “Busbahnhof” in German. “Bahnhof” is “train station” and “Busbahnhof” is a “bus station” (as opposed to a “bus stop”, “Bushaltestelle”). Since the most common stations are train stations, it has become a generic term for “station”.

    Groucho Marx: Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

  3. Scott Mauldin said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 12:43 am

    I mean, concretely, having a commandment against "booty calling" could be an injunction against lust, but a commandment against "butt dialing" could be an injunction against sloppiness and clumsiness. Imagine civilization goes through a new dark age and the new "Bible" talks about the moral failings of our information age – we could certainly imagine a theological split where some denominations take the injunction against "calls of the posterior" to mean the one and other denominations to mean the other.

    I'm not a biblical scholar nor am I familiar with semitic languages, but I recall hearing about the continuing disagreement over the translation of the name of the Sea in Exodus ( Whether it is "Red Sea" or "Sea of Reeds" or even "Sea of Storms" has a huge implication on the scale of the miracle involved and, were it to be a story with more direct archeological or historical implications, the location of events.

    I also asked ChatGPT for some other examples:

    Isaiah 7:14 – "Virgin" or "Young Woman": In this verse, the Hebrew word "almah" is used, which can be translated as either "virgin" or "young woman." The choice of translation has theological implications, as it relates to the prophecy of the birth of a child, often understood as a messianic prophecy. In the Christian tradition, the term "virgin" is often used to emphasize the miraculous nature of Jesus' birth, while some Jewish translations prefer "young woman" to avoid the implication of a miraculous birth.

    Genesis 1:1 – "In the beginning" or "When God began to create": The Hebrew phrase "Bereshit bara Elohim" is traditionally translated as "In the beginning, God created," but some scholars argue that a more accurate translation is "When God began to create." This translation subtly shifts the emphasis from the creation of the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) to God's creative activity within a pre-existing cosmos.

    Psalm 22:16 – "They have pierced my hands and feet" or "Like a lion, they are at my hands and feet": This verse is seen as a messianic prophecy, and the choice of translation can affect interpretations of the crucifixion of Jesus. Some argue that the Hebrew text suggests "piercing," while others believe it should be translated differently, leading to different theological implications.

    Romans 3:25 – "Propitiation" or "Atonement": The Greek word "hilasterion" in this verse can be translated as "propitiation" or "atonement." The choice of translation impacts how one understands the work of Jesus on the cross and the theological concept of reconciliation with God.

    Hebrews 2:9 – "Taste death" or "Experience death": The Greek word "geuomai" can be translated as either "taste" or "experience." The choice of translation affects the understanding of Jesus' death and its significance.

    Genesis 6:2 – "Sons of God" or "Bene Elohim": This passage is subject to various interpretations, and the translation choice can affect theological beliefs. Some interpret "sons of God" as referring to angels, while others see them as human beings, potentially leading to different theological understandings of the passage.

  4. AKMA said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 1:16 am

    From the biblical desk, I take it that the point is not to suggest that *nobody* 2000 years hence understands the difference between butt dials and booty calls, but that casual readers won’t. The relevance to biblical interpretation then turns to emphasise the importance of scholarship and contextual sensitivity, over against readers who think they can just pull their Bible off the shelf and begin adjudicating the conduct of their contemporaries on the basis of what they see in the KJV.

  5. Yuval said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 2:38 am

    Unrelated and yet surprisingly related, my absolute favorite false-friends-but-not-really specimen is butt-call itself, which in Modern Hebrew can be realized as /bʌt kol/, identical to the biblical בת קול, "daughter of voice" but idiomatically Voice of God, which is such an apt description for a butt-call.
    And yes, I've xoten this, more than once.

  6. AntC said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 3:20 am

    @AKMA I take it that the point is not to suggest that *nobody* 2000 years hence understands the difference between butt dials and booty calls, but that casual readers won’t.

    Pretty clearly with bible translation, it's the KJV translators ('experts') who didn't understand some of the original language. In some cases they just invented pseudo-English words as calques of what they were guessing at. And despite all the Bible scholarship even today there are passages *nobody* understands securely. This then got compounded by 'casual readers' guessing further and/or C20th interpreters (not necessarily casual, some 'professional' dogmatics) taking 'literal' C20th senses of English words that had shifted meaning since C17th.

    @myl But the hermeneutic implications of the distinction are not yet clear to me

    Since you say "I do understand the difference", I'm not getting what you're not getting. At risk of teaching my grandmother …

    Some senses of 'booty' are the same as some senses of 'butt'; but in this example 'booty' is used as a metaphor for sexual connection (of nether regions), whereas 'butt' is merely a body part.

    Some senses of 'dial' are the same as some senses of 'call'; but in this example 'call' means deliberately communicating (some objective); whereas 'dial' is merely the mechanical means of pressing buttons with no deliberation.

    Then as with your hair oil/olive oil example, the words would be in different case (if we had a sufficiently rich case system): 'butt' is Instrumental; 'booty' is Purposive or some such. Calling for booty/dialling by butt.

    And in 2000 years, nobody will be using cell phones/we'll just talk/think into some implant in our heads, just as nobody today uses rotary dials. (Bring them back! No butt dialling back then.) I suggest people will still be booty calling; but not dialling (with any part of their anatomy).

  7. AKMA said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 5:53 am

    @AntC it's the KJV translators ('experts') who didn't understand some of the original language. Yes, well, no surprise that gentile scholars of the seventeenth century don't read Hebrew fluently. And yes, some `expressions still defy confident interpretation. I don't think the former affects the point in question materially, and the latter reinforces the general point of the meme.

    There may be C20th biblical scholars who take the sense of English words from the C17th in their C20th/21st senses, but it's pretty rare for someone who's recognised as a biblical scholar to be illiterate in at least Hebrew or Greek (if not both, plus Aramaic, NW Semitic languages, Coptic, or Latin). So a biblical scholar who reads 'literally' from the KJV is probably like a columnist with usage peeves who claims to be a linguist.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 6:43 am

    “ 2000 years from now, people will not understand the difference between ‘butt dial’ and ‘booty call’ ” — equally true is the fact that “5000 miles from where this statement was probably written, many people today not only do not understand the difference between ‘butt dial’ and ‘booty call’, they also have no idea what either phrase means.

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 6:44 am

    For Chinese, since compounding (broadly defined) is the primary word formation device, the cited relations, with all mentioned potential ambiguities, run rampant (as Mark and Richard know well).

    As in English, once the form is lexicalized there is no issue. But even then, we can tease apart ease of lexical retrieval through experimentation. So, for example, the frequency, and transparency, of the component morphemes both affect reading speed, with high-frequency components tending to increase, and transparent components tending to decrease, reading speed.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 8:12 am

    @Philip Taylor, isn't it obvious? A "butt dial" is an instrument showing how much beer is left in the barrel, and a "booty call" is a financial instrument related to the division of future plunder.

  11. Wanda said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 2:53 pm

    I'm pretty sure that 2000 years from now, there will still be people who choose to brag in public about their ignorance about popular culture rather than take such easy actions as reading a previous comment or doing a simple Google search.

  12. Chris Button said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 3:24 pm

    Oil "of" olive
    Oil "for" hair

    Certainly makes things clearer.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 3:53 pm

    I think you will agree, Wanda, that just because something counts as "popular culture" in your peer group does not necessarily imply that it counts as popular culture outside of it. What may be commonplace knowledge for you and Laura Grimes may be completely impenetrable to others.

  14. GH said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 4:50 pm

    But vice versa, @Philip Taylor, your ignorance does not imply that something is not widely known in the culture at large. A quick search shows that while "butt dial" remains something of an Americanism (British sources tend to prefer "pocket dial"), "booty call" is well enough known to be used in English newspapers without definition or explanation, though usually with quotation marks.

  15. AntC said,

    September 14, 2023 @ 6:10 pm

    @Wanda I'm pretty sure that 2000 years from now, there will still be people who choose to brag in public about their ignorance about popular culture rather than take such easy actions as reading a previous comment or doing a simple Google search.


    @PT many people today not only do not understand the difference …

    may be completely impenetrable to others.

    "many people" sounds like a claim of fact. As opposed to your own personal willful ignorance of language as she is used. How "many people"/"others" did you survey?

  16. AKMA said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 2:51 am

    The issue is further complicated by the general UK preference for 'bum' over 'butt' for the human posterior — as I was reminded when I once reverted to Americanism and alluded to my 'bum shoulder', to the vast amusement of children present.

  17. Peter Grubtal said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 3:07 am

    I'm with Philip Taylor : before perusing this thread, these expressions were unknown to me, and not known in the English-speaking circles with which I commune.

    Even "butt", although I nowadays recognize it, is to me a pure Americanism, and until very recently never used in that sense in England.

    But I realize it's fashionable nowadays on this side of the pond to affect perfect familiarity with American colloquialisms, and pretend they were always a part of our culture.

  18. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 7:41 am

    Peter Grubtal said: "I realize it's fashionable nowadays on this side of the pond to affect perfect familiarity with American colloquialisms, and pretend they were always a part of our culture."

    Don't sweat it (Am. coll.?); every few years or so the same thing happens on _this_ side of the pond too — someone gets coronated or Netflix has a series with a Britisher or two in it, and all of a sudden people start walking around saying things like, "no worries" and the frequency of "sort of'" and "a bit" see an uptick. By the way, "no worries" seems to be sticking around — is there any way yinz can take that one back?

    Philip Taylor,

    I think what you're suffering from is a weird type of extremely-selective prescriptivism that has not yet been openly acknowledged as such. In other words, by not acknowledging the universal currency of "butt dial" or "booty call", you have, as the PoMos say, "othered" yourself.

  19. Levantine said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 8:58 am

    I believe “no worries”, though it now sounds totally normal in British English, is an import from Australia.

  20. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 10:25 am


    Ah, well, whom in Oz can I contact to arrange a trade? I offer "no worries" in exchange for… "fair dinkum"? No, no, "Bob's your uncle"!

  21. Yves Rehbein said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 1:53 pm

    > the hermeneutic implications aren't clear to me [ML]

    This seems to be a riff on "the Bible" in the original message. Dial it back a notch, forget about Latin, Greek and biblical Hebrew, for now, suffice with English. The origin of "booty" is unknown. We think it is borrowed from Old Dutch, like all other cognates, leaving the etymon without a possible reconstruction, following the Wiktionary discussion on Request for Deletion of the Proto-Germanic reconstruction, see Reconstruction:Proto-West Germanic/būti). So far it still says:

    >Uncertain; possibly borrowed from Gaulish *boudi, from Proto-Celtic *boudi (“profit, gains; victory”)[1], or perhaps from *biūtijan, from *bi- (locative prefix) +‎ *ūt (“out, outward”) +‎ *-jan[2].

    This is hidden in the English lemma behind "Middle Low German bǖte (“distribution, exchange, loot”), of obscure origin, […]. Possibly ultimately from Gaulish *boudi,"

    "Butt" on the other hand has a natural, anatomical interpretation. I might call this the terminal element in the category, but I'm bad at maths. You might call it the euphemism treadmill at work. The tweet seems to suggest that sexism, as it were, is one reason the Bible is difficult to stand-under?

    I have searched for a solution to both those problematic words independently without success. When *butt* is derived from Proto-Germanic (compare bottom) I find it difficult to ignore Portuguese bunda ("ass", Borrowed from Kimbundu mbunda) and cognate Bantu bantu etc. ("human", as in the name of Ubuntu, the Linux distribution).

    This brings us back to the Bible. The polysemy of earth / human is implied to be a typological likelyhood. Compare Latin humanus, homo ("man") related to humus ("ground, floor; earth, soil"), thus Wiktionary:

    >The phenomenon of a derivational relationship between the words for both earth and man is also seen in Semitic languages: Hebrew אָדָם‎ (adám, “man”), אֲדָמָה‎ (adamá, “soil”).

    Wiktionary adds cognates from Proto-Italic – Oscan: (humuns); South Picene: (nemúneí, “nobody”); Umbrian: homonus – which is why I love them. "From earlier *xemō," (following de Vaan), "from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰmṓ." (passim, though forms may differ).

    See Wodtko (2008:98): "unclear remains lat. hūmānus, -a, -um". A-pro-pos booty note that "Bammesberger discusses a potential Germanic continuant in Old English gamban, gambe ‘tribute’ (with VorGermanisch gam- < *[dʰ]ǵʰ-om-) in Sprache 22 (1976), 53f."ō

    Wodtko, Irslinger, Schneider (2008), "Nomina im indogermanischen Lexikon". Winter: Heidelberg. (excerpts translated from English by me, yours truly)

    Bammesberger (1976) is not available to me right now.

  22. Haamu said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 3:45 pm

    Seems like there are 2 different phenomena here: (1) confusion because the relationship between the words is unstated ("oil [for] hair" vs. "oil [from] hair"), and (2) confusion about the meanings of the words themselves ("booty" vs. "butt").

    Your lead-in is about (1), but the tweet seems to be an example of (2), so it feels like a bit of a mismatch. (Admittedly, (1) makes (2) more likely, and perhaps contributes here, but it isn't the main thing the tweet is talking about.)

  23. Philip Anderson said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 5:05 pm

    I understand the term “butt dial”, although I wouldn’t use it, but I didn’t know what “booty call” meant (and therefore not the difference), even though both butt and booty are in my passive vocabulary; I wouldn’t describe either as “universal currency”. Younger people may use it for all I know, but if British newspapers use “booty call” in quotes, that must be because there’s no equivalent in British English.
    Nowadays we do have Google, even 5000 miles away, so now I do know – 30 years ago that wouldn’t have been an option, and Laura assumes it won’t be in 2000 years time. I think Philip Taylor was quite reasonable to point out incomprehension can come from cultural as well as temporal separation.

    @Yves Rehbein
    Proto-Celtic *boudi is behind Boudica’s name and Welsh ’budd’ (profit) and related words.

    Houseboat, rowboat, tugboat, steamship, battleship, cruise ship, cargo ship …

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 5:53 pm

    Benjamin — “ In other words, by not acknowledging the universal currency of "butt dial" or "booty call", you have, as the PoMos say, "othered" yourself ” — two points, if I may ? (1) I asked a group of six over dinner this evening whether they were familiar with either phrase. Five of the six were not. So the claim of "universal currency" is clearly a non-starter. (2) What is a PoMo ?

  25. HS said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 8:00 pm

    Both "butt dial" and "booty call" are very rare here in New Zealand, at least in my experience. A quick Google search does reveal a few hits from New Zealand but I have personally never heard either term in the wild (as it were) and I think this would probably be true of most New Zealanders. The only reason I know what either term means is because I have read about them here on Languagelog.

    The words "butt" and "booty", in the relevant sense under discussion, are also rare in New Zealand. I know what they mean but they are very definitely pure Americanisms to me and not at all a part of my normal, natural language. Again, I think that would be true of most New Zealanders (or at least those of my generation – they may be more familiar to the younger generation).

    If I didn't know what they meant from reading Languagelog I wouldn't have a clue what either "butt dial" or "booty call" meant if I encountered them – they would be completely and utterly mysterious and incomprehensible to me. I don't think I would necessarily recognize them as compounds and I don't think I would even necessarily know what parts of speech the individual words were. It seems quite plausible to me that in floundering around attempting to make sense of "butt dial" I might try to interpret the word "butt" as a verb (as in butt like a goat) in a vain attempt to make sense of the phrase. "Booty call" would be even more incomprehensible. The only sense of "booty" that exists in my version of English is "loot", as in "pirates' booty". (I do know of the American sense of the term, but that is essentially only as a foreign word and I don't think it would ever impinge itself upon my consciousness as a possible meaning when encountering the word "booty" unless the context forced it, such as in "shake your booty on the dance floor".)

    Philip Taylor's comment seems to me to be completely reasonable and relevant (and also perfectly good humoured, unlike the comments of those who have criticised him). What is part of popular culture in one part of the world may not necessarily be so somewhere else, and there exist many different versions of English beyond the borders of the United States.

  26. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 9:18 pm

    Regarding Haamu's (1)/(2), the tweet's predicted confusion must concern (2) compositionality, no? — as it anticipates a future reader who somehow knows the word pairs involved to be (near) synonyms.

    Tho perhaps the comparison to Biblical hermeneutics was not meant to be so fine-grained, i.e., was just saying "language confuzing lol"…

    Tho along the lines indicated by Jerry Packard, there is certainly no shortage of cases where just such compounding-motivation-ambiguity could throw off readers of future Chinese texts… or indeed does throw off current readers…

    @HS above extends the longstanding LL schtick of Philip Taylor expressing bewilderment re: some newfangled word/phrase/grammatical construction etc. and others becoming frustrated and telling him to google it FFS. So e.g. PT could google "PoMo" (or deduce from context) but doesn't care to, which is of course his (pesky? performative?) prerogative…

  27. AntC said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 9:26 pm

    @HS Both "butt dial" and "booty call" are very rare here in New Zealand, at least in my experience. … never heard either term in the wild (as it were) and I think this would probably be true of most New Zealanders.

    We must be living in different territories, both coincidentally named 'New Zealand'.

    I'd agree they're seldom used by my generation (especially not "booty call"). I've heard the yoof say "butt dial" and/or 'shift yer butt'.

    I disagree PT's attitude is in any way reasonable or relevant. I'd describe that initial intervention as narcissistic (it's all about me) and downright rude/not following the Gricean precepts. If he (or you) have never heard the phrase/aren't secure in its meaning and usage, just butt out of the conversation. 'Null answers not required' as it says in surveys. You have nothing to add on the topic of those compounds; stick to commenting on 'olive oil'/'hair oil' (supposing you might know those).

  28. HS said,

    September 15, 2023 @ 10:20 pm

    Yes, I think we must be living in different countries, AntC – and ones with very different standards of manners. My post above seems perfectly reasonable to me, and is I think reasonably accurate about the frequency of these phrases in New Zealand English, at least in my personal experience as a native speaker of New Zealand English. Your last paragraph, in contrast, strikes me as outrageously rude.

    Jonathan Smith – what I wrote was not schtick. Just because these words and phrases are common in American English doesn't mean that they are common in other varieties of English. A number of other commenters (mostly from Britain, I think) have also commented that they were unfamiliar with them.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 6:40 am

    AntC / HS — “ I disagree [that] PT's attitude is in any way reasonable or relevant. I'd describe that initial intervention as narcissistic (it's all about me) and downright rude/not following the Gricean precepts. ”

    If by "that initial intervention", AntC is referring to my first comment in this thread, then I can only repeat it here :

    “ […] equally true is the fact that “5000 miles from where this statement was probably written, many people today not only do not understand the difference between ‘butt dial’ and ‘booty call’, they also have no idea what either phrase means. ”

    and ask where he finds any reference at all to myself or any evidence of rudeness — it is a simple statement of fact, nothing more, nothing less. AntC is, of course, at liberty to challenge my assertion that these are facts — that is, after all, the very essence of intellectual debate — but as others [e.g., HS, five of six over dinner] have confirmed that these phrases are alien to them, I continue to believe that the statement was factually accurate.

  30. Bloix said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 1:22 pm

    Not sure what hermeneutic implications might be at issue. But it seems to me that the distinction between dial and call carries the meaning here. In butt dial, the butt is (metaphorically) doing the dialing – there is no conscious intent to make a call involved. In booty call, the "call" is intentional – it is a the caller's call for booty, not a misdial by a non-conscious body part.

  31. Peter Taylor said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 2:59 pm

    To me, the truly mystifying question about how "butt dial" as opposed to "pocket dial" gained currency in North America is the inherent assumption that the phone is carried in the rear pocket. In the days of phones with physical buttons and pay-as-you-go I have managed to spend all of my credit leaving a silent message on a friend's voicemail, but that was with the phone in my hip pocket. I understand that clothing designed for women frequently lacks adequate hip pockets, but am I really so unusual among men in carrying my phone there? Is this another cultural difference?

  32. AntC said,

    September 16, 2023 @ 5:16 pm

    @Philip Taylor there are significant numbers of GHits for both "butt dial" and "booty call" at both the DailyTelegraph's and Daily Mail's websites. (If anything, more booty calls than butt dials, which surprised me.)

    The Times has plenty enough booty calls, including one from Edward VIII to his mistress; no butt dial(ling) but there are Brazilian butt lifts.

    The Guardian has a few booty calls but only a single 'butt dialling'.

    @HS there are significant numbers of GHits at both Stuff's and NZHerald's websites. The butt dials seem more often articles syndicated from Australia.

    I think both of you need to get out more. Now can we get back to compositional Noun Phrases please.

  33. John Swindle said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 12:49 am

    Consider facial tissue and body tissue. Facial tissues are analogous to hair oil, tissues for use on the face. Body tissues are however not analogous to olive oil. They are not made of bodies but rather the other way around.

    A butt dial emulating an old rotary telephone dial would be a good accessory for Halloween at the office.

  34. Peter Taylor said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 1:55 am

    Facial tissue is polyvalent, being also a subset of body tissue.

  35. Philip Anderson said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 5:39 am

    Chilli powder (made from), curry powder( to make) and baby powder (for use on).

  36. John Swindle said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 7:03 am

    @Peter Taylor: One would think so, but a web search for facial tissue or facial tissues will show how much the tissue-paper meaning predominates. Collins dictionary online lists only this meaning and categorizes it as American. Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries online don't include the term.

    @Philip Anderson: Vanishing cream, intended either to vanish on the skin or, in the old cartoons, to make one vanish.

  37. Bloix said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 8:27 am

    How about compounds in which the addition of the modifier negates the meaning of the main noun? – or rather, changes it from a literal to a metaphoric meaning?
    E.g. saw horses and sea horses are not horses; a steam donkey is not a donkey; German silver is a metal that is not silver and German measles is a disease that is not measles; head cheese and egg creams contain no dairy products; a decision tree has no roots or leaves.

  38. Philip Anderson said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 8:45 am

    I wouldn’t take British newspaper usage as strong evidence for ordinary usage, and as someone has already noted “booty call” generally appears in quotes – I can’t think of a snappy British alternative term.

  39. Peter Taylor said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 3:37 pm

    @John Swindle, as a general term, sure, but it's not hard to find technical use in medical journals by adding an extra search term or two. E.g. the first hit I get for "facial tissue" surgery is a paper entitled Facial Reconstruction by Biosurgery: Cell Transplantation Versus Cell Homing which uses it in the body tissue sense.

    @Bloix, no computer scientist would agree with you about decision trees. The root is the node which has the first decision, and the leaves are the nodes which are not branches.

  40. John Swindle said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 9:44 pm

    @Peter Taylor: Yes! I hadn't thought of the qualifying terms.

  41. AntC said,

    September 17, 2023 @ 11:04 pm

    @Philip A evidence for ordinary usage

    Nobody was claiming those terms are ordinary British usage/we've all acknowledged them as U.S. usage. The original claim was many people today [in U.K.] … have no idea what either phrase means.

    I don't see British (or NZ) newspapers would put those phrases — even in scare quotes — if "many" of their readers have "no idea". Now those claiming to have no idea have every right to not read newspapers and/or to live in caves. Although I note their caves seem connected to the Interwebz. But in that case they can't go claiming on a forum with an explicit policy:

    Be informed. If you don't know anything, please don't say anything.

    … that proudly proclaiming their ignorance is a legitimate contribution.

    (Not every topic at LLog is aimed at the whole audience. I delight at the specialist/obscure topics as an opportunity to listen and learn; _not_ to contribute.)

  42. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 7:17 am

    On the plus side, Philip Taylor's post and the responses thereto made me realize that I'd misunderstood or misremembered the meaning of "booty call"; I'm now better informed.

  43. Philip Anderson said,

    September 18, 2023 @ 7:32 am

    I certainly read newspapers, including some of those who mention “booty call”, but not cover-to-cover, and I have not consciously met some of these phrases; I admit to not reading the Daily Mail. I’m not so sure that journalists only use words they expect a majority of their readers to understand
    Personally, I am not “proud” of not knowing them, and do generally google them in order to learn, but nor am I ashamed of not having met them before. It’s a fact that people have different vocabularies.
    Since this is a forum for discussing language, I do believe that it is legitimate to discuss how widespread particular words and phrases are – if British English speakers should get familiar with Americanisms, equally it’s possibly interesting for Americans to understand the differences between countries.

  44. GH said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 12:52 am

    A check of the Google Ngram viewer shows that "booty call" is only somewhat less common in British than in American English (frequencies of 55 and 65 per whatever, respectively).

    Meanwhile, one of the Daily Mail articles that mention "butt dial" also explains why it's less common:

    The phrase has fallen out in recent years thanks to the advent of phones with touch screens instead of buttons – a feature that makes it significantly less likely for accidental calls to be made.

    Finally, a reflection that may sound like a paradox: Most people don't know most things that are common knowledge.

  45. AntC said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 1:06 am

    I have not consciously met some of these phrases

    Then perhaps you'd like to contribute to this thread by comparing similar familiar (to you) phrases (say)

    'courtesy call' vs 'close call' vs 'margin call'.

    Or 'sun dial' vs 'pocket dial' vs 'compass dial'.

    Using Sproat's formula 'an N1 N2 is an N2 relative-clause-containing-N1,'

    Noting a compass rose is a wind rose is not a cabbage rose.

  46. HS said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 6:56 pm

    > @HS there are significant numbers of GHits at both Stuff's and NZHerald's websites.

    AntC, at the risk of prolonging this discussion further when it would be much more interesting discussing the compositionality of noun-noun compounds (a subject that interests me a lot, by the way), a quick Google search reveals that there are exactly two mentions of "butt dial" on Stuff. One is from 2015 and refers to a US court case. I would fully expect that a report on a US court case would use the US term. The other is from March this year and refers to an Australian television series. I would have expected Australian usage to be similar to that of New Zealand, but perhaps the term is more common there. Or perhaps the TV series is designed for an American audience. There are exactly two mentions of "butt dial" in the New Zealand Herald. These are also from March this year and refer to the same television series and are syndicated from Australia.

    There are exactly two mentions of "booty call" in the New Zealand Herald. One is an interview with a sexologist. It doesn't actually surprise me in the least that the term might crop up there. In the other one the sense of the term "booty" is "loot", or more precisely "Government largesse", as you would have known if you had actually bothered to read the article (although to be fair, the journalist is clearly using the term punningly and knowingly). There are exactly four mentions of "booty call" on Stuff. One is in a sexology article. As before, it doesn't surprise me that the term would appear there. The other three are basically gossip articles about American celebrities, and it doesn't surprise me that the term might appear there. Two of the three articles use the term in quotation marks.

    These are two of New Zealand's largest news sites, and that is all there is. The Stuff website goes back to 2000, the Herald one back to 1998. I don't know what your definition of a "significant" number of hits is, but this doesn't meet mine. Far from demonstrating that these terms are common in New Zealand, this seems to me to provide rather compelling evidence of the exact opposite.

    Also – and I've hesitated about including this paragraph but I've decided to do it anyway, though I've toned it down considerably – I have been reading Languagelog for a long time without commenting, and I've read a number of comments by you on New Zealand English, and based on what I've seen you say I would have very little if any confidence in anything that you may have to say on the subject (and therefore, by extension, I'd be very hesitant to have any confidence in anything you may have to say on language and linguistics in general). To take a recent example, in a post a couple of months ago you misidentified Teva sandals as jandals despite saying that you had lived in New Zealand for nearly 30 years. I don't think anyone outside New Zealand could even begin to imagine just how ludicrous that seems to a New Zealander. It would be roughly equivalent to living in America for 30 years and not knowing what a baseball cap was, then confidently misidentifying a cowboy hat as a baseball cap while professing to be an expert on American English.

    I'm actually a native speaker of New Zealand English, which you aren't, and I have a very good knowledge of New Zealand English, which you clearly don't. I am quite confident in my judgement that most New Zealanders wouldn't have heard of either of these terms and wouldn't know what they mean. When I wrote my original comment I was quite careful to qualify my statements appropriately with phrases like "I think", as is only proper, but in fact I have essentially zero doubt about this. Of course, there will be a minority of people who do know these terms, and you can certainly debate just how large or small that minority is – my feeling is that it is rather small, though it's probably larger amongst the younger generation. You clearly belong to that minority and I think you therefore have a completely distorted view about how common these terms actually are amongst the general population.

    In addition, I have to say that just as I found your original reply extremely offensive, I also find extremely offensive your suggestions that I live in a cave, that I need to get out more, and that I don't read newspapers. (I imagine Philip Taylor feels the same way since the comments were also directed at him). Although it is completely irrelevant to the discussion, I actually live in the centre of a vibrant cosmopolitan city with a lively arts and music scene, a strong intellectual culture, and a very strong cafe culture (compared to which your hometown of Christchurch is, I'm sorry to say, a dead provincial backwater). Coming up soon we are having a major jazz festival which takes over the whole city, and an Italian film festival which I am particularly looking forward to. We've just had a major international film festival, and a major documentary film festival. Sadly we no longer have the series of public talks on evolutionary biology put on by the Alan Wilson Centre which used to pack out one of our largest theatres – I particularly remember Chris Stringer's talk. (Which reminds me, I must catch up with what is going on in the field. Have they found any more Denisovan fossils yet?) I get out a lot (and I mean a lot). I also read a lot of newspapers or news sites, including the Guardian, the Independent (which sadly has gone seriously downhill in recent years), and the BBC. I don't read the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail, and I probably wouldn't admit to it if I did. (Well, OK, sometimes I do read the Telegraph to get an alternative view on the world). I read Le Monde and Spiegel, though regrettably only in English translation. I also occasionally read American newspapers such as the New York Times, though probably not as much as I should.

    I wrote my original post because I thought people with an interest in language and linguistics, such as, you know, Languagelog readers, might actually have an interest in knowing what the status of these terms was in another part of the English-speaking world. I also tried to convey a sense of just how strange these terms can seem to people who speak another variety of English. It's not just that the compound is unknown as a whole, it's that the very component words themselves have very different meanings – ones that only exist at the periphery of your vocabulary. I certainly didn't expect to find myself insulted for it. I think you really ought to learn how to engage in civilized discourse – you clearly haven't got a clue. (And by the way AntC, I've also toned that paragraph down considerably – in fact considerably more than considerably, if that makes sense.)

    > But in that case they can't go claiming on a forum with an explicit policy:

    Be informed. If you don't know anything, please don't say anything.

    > … that proudly proclaiming their ignorance is a legitimate contribution.

    > (Not every topic at LLog is aimed at the whole audience. I delight at the specialist/obscure topics as an opportunity to listen and learn; _not_ to contribute.)

    I think this pompous comment is aimed at me as well as Philip Taylor. I don't comment on things that I don't know about. Ever. I've been reading Languagelog for years and never commented although I actually have a fairly good knowledge of linguistics – I studied it at university, although it's not what my degree is in and I've never worked in the field. For some reason on a whim I made a comment here. I chose to make a comment on New Zealand English because I actually know a lot about New Zealand English – I speak it like a native because, guess what, I am actually a native. You, on the other hand, have made quite a number of comments on New Zealand English, which you clearly and demonstrably have a somewhat limited grasp of. The irony here couldn't be greater, though doubtless it is beyond you. Fortunately I greatly enjoy irony.

    Now, having got that off my chest, perhaps we can return to the compositionality of noun-noun compounds…..

  47. HS said,

    September 19, 2023 @ 9:55 pm

    I apologise for several parts of the above comment, which now strike me as completely misjudged.

  48. JPL said,

    September 20, 2023 @ 1:31 am

    For me, this post provoked some observations that to an English grammarian or syntactician (which I obviously am not) are probably old hat, but to me were new, or at least I think they were. First of all, "butt dial" seems to me to be a basically verbal phrase, while "booty call" is basically nominal, although given the freedom of English zero derivation, both could occur either verbally or nominally. So what was new to me was the observation that, in addition to the well-known syntactic significance of relative position in nominal pre-modification, where the position nearest to the head (the head being the element that is conserved in an initial differentiation of the syntactic schema, the "innermost argument" (although I no longer like the function metaphor here)), indicates a subcategorization of the (sense of the) head nominal, this significance also applies, mutatis mutandis, to the verbal phrase. (The "classifier" position is often not "filled", as in the case of an adjectival, describing a property, immediately preceding the head nominal.) So, a syntactic differentiation indicating a subcategorization results in an enrichment of the lexicon, where a new lexeme, the compound, is created, where the sense of the compound is a subcategorization of the original category. (I would hypothesize that all lexemes in the lexicon of a language originate in the syntax of particular acts of language use. (Certainly not in the genome.)) That's all the syntactic position indicates; there is no further indication of the specific reasons for the subcategorization, which can be many and varied. So, like "butt dial", "spoon feed" and "hand wash" would differentiate by the difference in the instrument role common in descriptions of actions. BTW, phrases like "stir fry" and "spin dry" I have always liked to view as serial verb constructions (sequence, act-result), but I know it's probably not so for most speakers. And btw, although normally the sub-classifying premodifier is a lexical noun, these last examples show that they can be lexical verbs (basically) as well.

    The "booty call" case belongs to the panoply of the usual reasons for subclassification. (Reason for the action, as in "emergency call", vs. "clarion call" (instrument), vs. "conference call" (number of participants), etc. An outside observer might need to know something of the context in which that subcategory was initially differentiated from the larger category. But the mechanism for the possibility of recognizing the meaning of the compound should be similar to the ability to distinguish different senses of a given lexeme. The "excess" of content in the compounds not covered by the meanings of the individual component lexemes could be interpreted as coming from the reason for the differentiation and its type. And btw again, I always thought that that expression (as in "shake your booty") originated from BE via the car body metaphor, even though it was probably coined in the AAVE community. (In Sierra Leone Krio the boot of a car, especially if it is prominent, can be called a "tumba". ('tumba' is a term for a prominent buttocks. And btw nobody has mentioned the difference in sense between 'butt' and 'booty', even though, wrt a given referent, their uses could be referentially identical.) I don't intend any of this to be authoritative; it's only my personal take.

  49. HS said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 9:50 pm

    Antc, I have to apologise – I messed up my Google searches and there are several more instances of "booty call" and "butt dial" on Stuff and the NZ Herald that I missed – there seem to be up to a dozen or so in each case, though interestingly there are less for "butt dial" than for "booty call". But these numbers are still very low. By comparison I've tried a number of US newspapers and the numbers are vastly, vastly, vastly bigger (though obviously you would have to take into account population size). So I'm still happy with my conclusion that these terms are rare in New Zealand, certainly compared to the United States, though perhaps not quite as rare as I'd realised. And I'm still confident that these terms would be little known amongst the general population, as opposed to journalists, academics, and so on. I've also tried Philip Taylor's experiment of asking some friends, and none of them had heard of them. Though to be fair we're all roughly the same demographic – but I did explicitly acknowledge that these terms may be more common amongst the younger generation.

    Also, after I wrote that long comment above I realised that my tone was far too strong and a bit unfair. But I'm afraid the tone of your first response to me didn't exactly engender much goodwill on my part towards you when all I was trying to do was report faithfully on the status of these terms in New Zealand, which I thought might be of interest to people who are interested in language and don't know much about New Zealand English.

    I apologise.

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