Cutthroat compounds in English morphology

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:

Bizarro Comics by Dan Piraro - water truck fire truck

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise, lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head – both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long and colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

Robert Bresson - Pickpocket (1959) film poster[poster of Robert Bresson’s classic film Pickpocket (1959) via this collection]

Despite the familiarity of these examples, only a few dozen are current in modern English. It’s because they conflict with the right-headedness of English, Brianne writes in her master’s thesis (‘From Turncoats To Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounding in English’), that cutthroats’ productivity will never surpass that of ‘backstabber’ compounds, which use the far more usual N-V-er pattern. We’re ‘book readers’, not ‘readbooks’; ‘word lovers’, not ‘lovewords’.

Cutthroats largely constitute ‘a treasury of nonce words’, having peaked centuries ago. Survivors tend to be peripheral, found in slang, regional dialects, and children’s short-lived innovations. But Brianne is on a mission to catalogue them and has recorded several hundred, including such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person), spoil-paper (bad writer), whiparse (abusive teacher), eat-bee (bird), lacklooks (unattractive person), stretchgut (glutton), clutchfist (miser), and catch-fart (servant who walks behind their master).

One I’ve always liked is smell-feast, meaning someone who sniffs out a feast and comes uninvited to share in it. The OED’s first citation for this word, from 1519, refers to ‘smellefyestes, lycke dysshes, and franchars [who] come vncalled’. Franchars derives from franch, an obsolete word meaning ‘feed greedily’, while the more transparent ‘lycke dysshes’ counts as another cutthroat. Here is Brianne on their general status:

Cutthroats are freely productive in Romance languages, which have a V.O. (verb-object) structure and are left-headed. English, which is V.O. and right-headed, has slight native productivity (Clark et al, 1986) that has been amplified and augmented by French borrowings (e.g., coupe-gorge [cutthroat] and wardecorps [bodyguard]). English has been slowly producing new cutthroats since the 1200s up through 2015, mainly in the form of nonce personal insults. Most cutthroats are obsolete slang, but about 40, including pickpocket, pinchpenny, rotgut and spitfire, are commonly known in Modern English.

Hunting them down and determining their cutthroat status can be tricky, since there’s no formula to determine how a compound’s parts relate to each other. This is the subject of a presentation Brianne will give at the SHEL/DSNA conference in Vancouver in June (‘Does a Slingshot Sling Shots? Difficulties in Identifying English Cutthroat Compounds’), from whose Abstract the quotation above is taken. For more on this see Laurie Bauer, ‘English Exocentric Compounds’ (PDF).

Finding them is aggravated by the fact that they tend not to appear in standard dictionaries or well-documented areas. But they do clump semantically: mainly as insults, occupational names, and provincial nature-words. Brianne divides them into six categories: people (insults, occupations, insulted occupations – sometimes as surnames); games; tools; food and drink; plants and animals (including twitchbell, which James Joyce incorporated into Finnegans Wake); and adjectives such as lacklustre, breakneck, and breakteeth (= ‘difficult to pronounce’).

So far she has identified 846 cutthroats, and maybe more by the time you read this. Finding one can lead to another, thus kill-priest (port wine) → strangle-prieststrangle-goosesaddle-goosesaddle-nag. Some verbs recur: break, turn, lack and pick all appear in over a dozen, choke in at least five: chokepriest (thick Italian soup), choke-sparrow (bearded wheat), choke-dog (hard cheese), choke-children (bony fish), and choke-jade (a place in England).

The pattern, though rare nowadays, is not completely unproductive in English. Children go through a phase of compound acquisition in which they invent cutthroats spontaneously before dropping the habit again. By email Brianne shared a few modern ones she has spotted in comics and other pop cultural domains, such as Princess Tinglepants, Professor Stealwater, and pesterchum (a messaging app). Among her vintage favourites, complete with her glosses, are:

Kick-shins: a children’s game

Swingebreech: a haughty swaggerer (who swings their hips while walking); related: shit-breech, quakebreech, shuffle-breeches

Fuckbottere: occupational last name where fuck means ‘strike’ and bottere is butter – an agrarian worker. (I believe one of the earliest instances of fuck.)

The insulting kinds, Brianne says, ‘cut right to what makes people unlikeable’. She loves their brutal honesty and finds that they tend to stand out and endure despite their low productivity. She feels cutthroats of all kinds have been unjustly overlooked, only ever ‘briefly mentioned in English compounding chapters, with the same examples over and over. Why aren’t there more? Why do they exist at all?’ These questions she addressed in some detail in her thesis.

I salute her quest to shine a light on what she calls a shadowy footnote of English morphology, and I highly recommend this short talk she gave in 2013, which offers more examples of cutthroats both contemporary and archaic, celebrates their curious nature, and briefly documents their shifting popularity over the centuries:



You can download the slides here. For a historical overview of exocentric V-N compounds in English and German, see Volker Gast 2008 (PDF):

There was (probably) a certain inventory of relevant items even before the Norman conquest, esp. in proper names and epithets. Under French influence, the pattern was ‘upgraded’, i.e. it became more productive and frequent and was used in more (esp. higher) registers. The productivity of exocentric V-N compounds increased steadily in the 14th and 15th centuries and reached a peak in the 16th century (e.g. kill-courtesy, lack-brain, lack-beard in Shakespeare). From the 17th century onwards, its productivity decreased considerably, resulting in the status quo of the contemporary language, where an inventory of relevant forms is still preserved, but hardly any new words are created.

The decline of exocentric V-N compounds was accompanied, and perhaps partly also caused, by a strong increase of ‘synthetic compounds’ of the form N-V-er. The two types have existed side by side for many centuries, sometimes providing alternative terms for one meaning (e.g. breakstone [1688] and stone-breaker [1827]). However, at the time of the Industrial Revolution synthetic compounds gained ground and took over great parts of the denotational domain previously covered by exocentric V-N compounds.

Gast looks at other European languages in a subsequent paper (PDF), which includes this graph showing the diverging fates of V-N and N-V-er compounds in English:

Volker Gast - verb-noun compounds vs synthetic noun-verb-er in history of English

(Synthetic is explained here.) Finally, if you want yet more exocentric pleasure, watch Chris Magyar’s half-hour comic talk where he riffs on why exocentric compounds appeal to him and why twinkletoes most of all:


Updates: Follow-ups at Language Hat, Fritinancy, and The Life of Words, and reposted in shorter form on Slate’s Lexicon Valley.

In 2016 Brianne gave another talk about cutthroats, at OddSalon. This one’s longer and also ruder:

30 Responses to Cutthroat compounds in English morphology

  1. Mike Shefler says:

    Then there’s the old conundrum – why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?

    • Irene Taylor says:

      Onya, Mark. This was my first thought when I read the opening sentence of this post. Cargoes by sea and shipments by road…feet smelling and noses running (not quite the same, but funny anyway). In a way I am disappointed that this post did not deliver more of the ‘Why Ask Why’ unanswerable questions. But on the whole I feel somewhat smarter now than I did half an hour ago (not as great a lackwit, perhaps). So thank you, Stan and Brianne. I look forward to more of – not the same, but posts as entertaining.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Thanks, Irene. I didn’t touch on compound conundrums (like parkway/driveway) partly because there’s enough material there for an entire separate post, even a short book, and it’s been done elsewhere many times. But mainly because this post is about cutthroat compounds, which deserve the spotlight for once. The brief introduction on compound structure was intended as a quick primer for anyone new to morphology before I moved on to cutthroats; I’m sorry it disappointed you.

  2. Fantastic post. Brianna is great! Started watching Chris Magyar’s video but it glitched and I ran out of time…will have to come back to it. I am surely a loveword LOL

  3. oops sorry, Brianne…typo

  4. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Perhaps for Strong Lanuage blog, but surely the F word can host, assuming F is a verb, a plethora of cutthroat compounds? Brianne’s lists may well have it, but one of my favorites that I perhaps wrongly assume is Australian, is pissartist. One who is an experienced drinker.

  5. Diane Nicholls says:

    I’ve always liked ‘scofflaw’.

  6. The idea of a “cutthroat compound” is great, very clever, and there is a sense of performance when saying it. There is also a violence to these word-pairings, as they can jump on the back of phrases and render an abstract dichotomy into a performance of harmony, existing simply and unarguably in their utterance. The use of these “cutthroat compounds” contain the reality where an apparent duality immediately has entered a state of unity.
    I have found that this is a useful tactic in writing, though I never called it by this name. It is extremely liberating to say exactly what you mean, all at once, and without further explanation, however I feel that sometimes it is over-used, and I try to keep it subtle.

  7. Stan Carey says:

    Mike: Why indeed. My guess is cosmic spite.

    bluebird: Thank you! I hope the Vimeo video stops glitching; it’s well worth watching if you have the time.

    Chips: Funny you should mention Strong Language. I had the same thought when I started making notes on cutthroats a couple of weeks ago, and discussed the possibility with Brianne. So watch this space (or that one, rather).
    Piss artist isn’t a cutthroat – because by denoting a type of artist it’s endocentric, plus piss in that context is not a verb but an attributive noun. They can be hard to spot. Along similar lines, though, piss-bed (dandelion, usually piss-a-bed) and drop-piss (a urinary disease) are cutthroats. Another one I like is fuckwind, which I discovered when looking up windfucker as an old name for a kestrel; these are one of those competing pairs (V-N vs. N-V-er) that Gast mentions.

    Diane: Me too. And only now do I understand why it’s always seemed older than it really is (1924). In her thesis, Brianne writes that scofflaw ‘was manufactured for a contest, which indicates that the pattern was transparent at the time, and its tendency to degrade its subject was still available’.

    utopiaoid: It’s true, there’s something very expressive about them (a little like kennings in this respect). The ‘violence’ of their pairing that you refer to is often entirely in keeping with their subject matter; for example, about 15 refer to someone who is about to be hanged.

    • Stan, you say the second half of the compound is the direct object; does this disqualify a word like “scofflaw,” since the connection requires a preposition (one doesn’t so much “scoff” the law as scoff AT it)? (Or is that perhaps only a modern idiom, and could one, at the time of the contest, scoff the law directly?)

      It was actually “piss-a-bed” that made me wonder about this and whether it affected a number of candidates. I’ve never heard this term for a dandelion in English, but the French (at least in Quebec) is “pissenlit,” or “piss-IN-bed.” (I learned this term a few years ago when i bought a gardening tool for digging them up; its label, bilingual by law in Canada, identified it on the French half as an “arrache-pissenlit,” or “yank-dandelion,” a sort of second-level cutthroat if we allow the “en” construction….)

      • When I was a child, we commonly referred to the yellow lawn daisies as “wet-the-beds” which was probably cleaned up by my conservative elders in the family from “piss-a-bed”.
        I thought of this reading the article and was delighted to see it mentioned here, too.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Elizabeth: Scoff has (or more properly had, in most dialects) a transitive use, thus Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘there the antic sits, / Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp’; and Swift’s Apology: ‘To see th’ important Man of Dress Scoffing my College Aukwardness.’ As for dandelions, we always called them that growing up, but I heard older relatives use, or at least mention, the more expressive name.

        wordynerdbird: You’re probably right about wet-the-bed, that it was a euphemistic form. I never heard it before, but I’d be surprised it if didn’t have some unofficial currency as a more family-friendly version of piss-(a-)bed.

  8. Assorted thoughts:

    I’ve never heard of a sawbones before (except as a name, which doesn’t count).

    Some of the archaic examples (“catch-fart”, etc) might be tempting to use in dialogue if you were writing period fiction. Not necessarily wise to use, but tempting.

    I heard this story second-hand, but apparently a child I know once said she was making “markbooks” instead of “bookmarks”.

    Video at 2:05 says a cutthroat is a type of person … which is odd because it’s usually a type of razor.

    I’ve not watched the Chris Magyar video yet.

  9. Stuart Brown says:

    Portuguese is very productive in cutthroats, because it simply cannot abide nominal attribution; my favourite from that is the term for hummingbird, beija-flor (lit. “kiss-flower”).

  10. Stan Carey says:

    Adrian: I’ve come across sawbones the odd time, typically in ironic or pejorative use in fiction. If I were writing historical fiction I wouldn’t resist the temptation to use cutthroats aplenty. Markbooks strikes me as a very likely child’s innovation. I might even adopt it.
    Re. polysemy of cutthroat: I don’t think the standalone noun usually refers to the razor – the murderer/violent criminal sense comes first in Oxford, M-W, AHD, Macmillan, and Collins dictionaries.

    Stuart: That’s a lovely name for it. Birds crop up quite a few times; some (turnstone) are more euphonious than others (suck-egg, e.g., cuckoo).

  11. John Cowan says:

    I’ve always heard this type referred to as tosspot compounds.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Apparently they have a few names, John. I’ve seen them called scarecrow compounds too, which I like, but for now I’m adopting the term Brianne Hughes uses.

  12. astraya says:

    George RR Martin didn’t coin the word ‘sellsword’, but he certainly popularised it in the Song of Ice and Fire books/Game of Thrones tv show. In mediaeval-type fantasy, a sellsword is not a kind of sword, or even someone who sells swords (by the sea shore or not), but a mercenary soldier, who come in ones, small groups and whole companies. There are even sellsails, who are basically the same thing on boats.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I didn’t encounter the term till recently, when the subject of cutthroats came up. So sword stands in metonymically for ‘sword-related services’.

  13. I would think the “pissartist” one would fit the pattern because of the Chumbawamba song that caused such and uproar about “pissing the night away,” which we were told then meant “drinking.” If that’s the case, “piss” would be a verb, so wouldn’t the word fit this category after all?

    • Stan Carey says:

      DJ: No – if piss artist were a cutthroat compound, it would refer to someone or something that pisses artists, which is obviously not the case. As my post says: the verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object. Piss artist passes neither criterion.

  14. wildoats1962 says:

    Wow, lots of material there. I can’t think of examples, but I’m sure I’ve seen materials written for children using/coining names reflective of occupations and personality traits. I would’ve thought children coining terms would be less common than adults coining them for teaching purposes. Although I would expect the coining of insults among children. The headedness of romance languages versus Germanic languages took me awhile to get used to when I took French in high school many years ago. It wasn’t explained in those terms. I learned more about English in French class than I did in English class though. Colloquial expressions would develop in isolation which was the norm a few hundred years ago. Modern communications might in some ways inhibit that the same way it inhibits dialectal divergence, but names for new technologies would spread very fast and across languages. As a college student I had Malaysian roommates, they would often use English nouns while speaking Malay if the noun were more familiar in English. This has been very interesting and I’m going to share the link with some friends that teach English.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, wildoats. Apparently children go through various stages of compound-formation, during which they try out different patterns. In one of these stages they produce exocentric V-N compounds like rip-paper (someone who rips paper) and break-bottle (something that breaks bottles). These, respectively, are the ‘agentive’ and ‘instrumental’ types mentioned in the post: people or things that perform a function.

      Brianne Hughes’s thesis refers to research on this by Clark et al. (1986), ‘Coining complex compounds in English: affixes and word order in acquisition’, which I haven’t got a copy of (yet). She writes:

      There is no evidence that children create this form based on influence from adult speakers, and yet they consistently pass through this phase during compound acquisition. There must be a set of rules within English that lead children to create such compounds, and then decide to leave them behind for a more advanced construction.

  15. […] Cutthroat compounds in English morphology […]

  16. nativedrum says:

    Wonderful article, thoroughly enjoyed it!

  17. […] to cutthroats. Stan Carey at Sentence First recently wrote up a post on them, following on from Hughes’s work. I caught up with it yesterday via LanguageHat. […]

  18. […] April 28, 2015: Sentence First (Stan Carey) […]

  19. […] Stan Carey notes a common pattern in English compounds: ‘… the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words […]

  20. […] familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast: the vowels disguise it effectively. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. […]

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