Cutthroat Backstabbers: The Devious World of English Verb-Noun Compounding


This will be about the fun parts of my master’s thesis, which is about 2 kinds of compound words in English. One type is ‘turncoats’ where the noun half is the object of the verb half. The other kind of backstabber, where the verb is turned into a noun with -er, and the direct object comes first. The ‘headedness’ of English, as well as its Verb-Object (VO) word order, cause the two patterns to have very different productivity. German languages have the same headedness as English, so they have a lot of backstabber compounds, whereas Romance languages are VO, and have a lot of turncoat-type compounds. Children will spontaneously make turncoat compounds when they are learning how to form words, but abandon the pattern later because it does not conform to the headedness of English. There have been about 500 turncoat compounds in English since 1200, and only about 20 are used in Modern English. At the end, to encourage casual study of historical linguistics, I’d mention,, and the accessibility of through library memberships.

Brianne Hughes


26. Just received an MA in Linguistics from University of York. I am currently working on casually informative Youtube videos called Encyclopedia Briannica. I’ve written about linguistic peculiarities on my personal website for the last 3 years. Every week I make a new punny webcomic there too. I’m on twitter as @tankhughes. I record ukulele covers and play volleyball in my free time. My dream job is to work as a researcher for the OED.