‘Smuggle plot tomatoes’ and other distant compounds

I’ve written before about noun pileups, where nouns pile up to form strange or baffling strings, typically in headlines, such as “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed”. Some, like “Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown ‘sorry’”, are almost parse-proof.

There are also noun compounds that don’t grow to great length, but still manage to be obscure unless you’re already following the story they relate to. Today’s BBC News website contains the following headline:

We can infer the probable, general meaning of “blast boy” from the headline, since blast is common shorthand for explosion (it can also mean criticise or criticism). But anyone unfamiliar with the narrative background will at best have only a vague idea of what’s being reported: we lack the necessary shared context until we read on.

“Blast boy” is what Arnold Zwicky calls a distant compound. These are noun-noun compounds “that can only be correctly understood by someone who can fill in the story that connects the referents of the two nouns”. The sense of distance comes from the

distant real-world relationships between the referents of the modifier and the head, requiring considerable background knowledge for the reader to interpret them.

This is what’s going on with “hurricane money” (see first Zwicky link); “nude pic row vicar”, analysed at Headsup; and “pumpkin bus”, Pamela Downing’s marvellous example of the phenomenon – though she calls them deictic compounds: “novel compounds created to satisfy a fleeting discourse need”.*

On Language Log a few years ago, Geoffrey Pullum used the headline phrase “canoe wife” to discuss the “unnatural semantic relations” of these striking constructions:

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.

Other examples I’ve noticed include “missile woman”, “shark widow”, “polar bear scientist”, and “Smuggle plot tomatoes” (hat tip to Lynne Murphy); in each case the nouns have a very different semantic relationship. Distant compounds are quite common in news headlines, perhaps especially in the UK. Have you spotted them in the wild?

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* Downing’s paper is at JSTOR for those of you with access. Her term deictic compound may be fine for linguists, but for everyday use I think Zwicky’s coinage distant compound has obvious advantages.

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9 Responses to ‘Smuggle plot tomatoes’ and other distant compounds

  1. John Cowan says:

    Sometimes these distant compounds become a stable part of the language, like milk tooth, which is not a tooth made of milk, or used for drinking milk, or anything relatively sane; it’s a tooth you acquire during the period of your life while you are still drinking human milk.

    Here’s a list of 33 semantically different types of noun-noun compounds, most of them with just two nouns and drawn from various languages.

    My favorite purely U.S. headline (not a noun pileup, though it looks like it could be) is “Club Fight Blocks Rail River Tube Plan”; chew on that a bit.

  2. stuartnz says:

    Are these crash blossoms? They remind me of the constructions Language Log describes using that phrase.

  3. Shaun Downey says:

    Wasthe polar bear scientist suspended for rooting through bins?

  4. Stan says:

    John: Thank you for the link: a very interesting list and classification. Your headline I confess I swallowed whole, being used to UK headline style. Blocks interrupts the nominal run, but there’s still a length-4 pile after it.

    Stuart: No – crash blossoms are headlines that lead readers up the garden path, semantically. They suggest particular other interpretations.

    Shaun: I think he just wouldn’t go with the floe.

  5. stuartnz says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Stan. I must have been distracted by gloating internally at how trivially easy I found the Ben Douglas example to parse, without having any context or prior knowledge to work with.

  6. [...] Stan Carey discussed the many right ways of English language usage, and on his own blog, looked at distant compounds, the Mind is a Metaphor database, and how awkwardly to avoid split infinitives. Meanwhile, John [...]

  7. [...] murders car also qualifies as a distant compound, like blast boy, canoe wife and pumpkin bus – multiple-noun compounds intelligible only to [...]

  8. Sadly, the phrase “smuggle plot tomatoes” was changed to “smuggled tomatoes”.

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