The English word, “scarecrow,” spontaneously came to mind the other day, and I realized just how similar this word is to other words and phrases in other languages.

For example, there are many commonly used nouns in Spanish that are formed by conjoining a transitive verb with its object (with the verb preceding the object, just like in the word, “scarecrow”) (e.g. “trabalengua” (lit. “twist tongue”) means “tongue twister,” and “lavaplato” (lit. “wash plate”) means “dishwasher”). In Chinese, there may be entire phrases and sentences which may be perceived to be verb phrases (especially within the framework of English or Western grammar), when they are actually meant to be perceived as “states”/“events”/“nouns” (not principally being some form of action).

I was wondering if there is a name for this kind of construction. This kind of construction seems rare in English - am I right? So far, I have only been able to think of “scarecrow.”


After some thought, the comparison I made between "scarecrow" and entire Chinese sentences/phrases is not a fair one. It seems like I was conflating exocentric compounds and endocentric compounds.

Consider, for example, the Chinese dictionary entry, “大爷 : 尊称年长的男子” (word by word, this phrase translates to: “大爷 (Sir) : 尊称 (respectfully-address) 年长的男子 (elder-gentleman)”). A proper direct translation for this dictionary entry would be: “Sir: respectfully address an elder gentleman.” Granted, what the word, “大爷,” represents is not some kind of action that can be expressed via a verb phrase, but rather a form of address. Therefore, a more natural translation for this dictionary entry would be: “Sir: a respectful address towards an elder gentleman.”

Now, let’s analyze “scarecrow.” “Scarecrow” is comprised of the verb, “scare,” and the object, “crow,” both separate words of which, when put together, can make up the verb phrase, “scare (a) crow.” The verb phrase in the direct English translation of the Chinese dictionary above can be, for our purposes, be reduced to “respectfully-address-(a)-gentleman” (“尊称男子”); this verb phrase contains the verb phrase, “respectfully-address,” and the object, “gentleman.” Unlike the word, “scarecrow,” the phrase, “respectfully-address-(a)-gentleman,” (which, in Chinese, may be considered to act as a single unit) does not refer to the perpetrator of the action, but rather the verbal noun (“address”) that relates to the action (“addressing”). In this context, wouldn’t we be able to say that this phrase mimics an endocentric compound? It seems like we could say that “respectfully-address-(a)-gentleman” is a noun that inherits the constituent, “address,” or “respectfully-address.”

As a matter of fact, endocentric compounds seem to be abundant in Chinese not only in the form of longer phrases and sentences, but also in the form of shorter phrases or words. For example: “煮鸡蛋” (lit. “boil egg”) means, “boiled egg.” (from the Chinese dictionaries I’ve used, the character/word, “煮” (“boil”), is NOT assigned any part of speech that is not “verb”)

Perhaps, earlier, I was conflating exocentric compounds and endocentric compounds (and thus made the comparison between “scarecrow” and endocentric compounds in Chinese).

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    This type of compound was very common in Old English. The dictionary is full of them. Some modern words are old compounds in disguise: LORD < HLAF-ORD = LOAF WARD. We still employ compound generation for vocabulary expansion, but we leave spaces between the words. Aug 12 at 11:35
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    @BertBarrois "loaf ward" is a more standard English compound. It would be like "scarecrow" if it were "ward-loaf". Aug 12 at 13:15
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    Tangentially, here's an article that simply compares "left-headed" and "right-headed" compounds, including ones like "scarecrow", in the context of bilingual acquisition — the title refers to French children applying their language's typical structure to generate the unlikely English "*brushteeth" for "toothbrush". :) Aug 12 at 13:16
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    @BertBarrois Lord is a completely different kettle of fish. It’s a standard endocentric compound consisting of two nouns, the latter governing the former: a loaf ward is a ward (= warden, guardian) of loaves. There is no verbal element in lord like there is in scarecrow. It’s semantically similar to the truckdriver type (object + verb-derived agent), but not morphologically, since a ward(en) isn’t a verb-derived agent, just a noun that happens to have a corresponding (identical) verb. Aug 12 at 13:29
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    @DarrelHoffman ‘Lord’ isn’t a portmanteau, though, since it’s not based on the first part of one word being glued together with the last part of another – it’s just a regular compound of two whole words. The fact that it looks a bit like a portmanteau now is pure coincidence, due to the fact that the /vw/ in the middle of the word was lost over time. ‘Portmanteau’ itself, however, is an example of a (French) pickpocket/cutthroat/tosspot compound, a ‘carry-mantle’. Aug 13 at 6:10

This is a specific subtype of exocentric compound. An exocentric compound is one which doesn't inherit the type of either of its constituents: a scarecrow is neither a type of crow nor a type of scaring. (The opposite is an endocentric compound, which does: e.g. a blackbird is a type of bird.)

There are many types of exocentric compound, and AFAIK there isn't a single standard name in use for this particular subtype. It's sometimes simply called an "exocentric verb-noun compound", for obvious reasons. Within Indo-European studies specifically, the terms "terpsimbrotos compound" and "phereoikos compound" are sometimes used, based on specific Greek examples of the type, but these aren't very common. At least one researcher who works on these compounds in English calls them "cutthroat compounds". There are actually several hundred of these in English, but most are rare or obsolete. In the Romance languages they're a productive type, as you imply.

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    Interestingly, "cutthroat" is itself a cutthroat compound. I imagine this was deliberate on her part.
    – Barmar
    Aug 12 at 13:58
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    @Barmar Yes indeed... not much other reason to coin the term :) Aug 13 at 4:08

There are actually several of these words in English: "rattlesnake", "crybaby", "scatterbrain", "killjoy", "tattletale", "tumbleweed", etc. They are sometimes called "flat compounds". Notably, some of them combine a verb with its object (a "turncoat" is a person who turns their coat), while others combine a verb with its subject (a "turntable" is a table that turns records).

Ljiljana Progovac suggests that these "flat compounds" are possible in all (or at least a good majority of) languages, and cites a variety of examples: Serbian cepi-dlaka "split-hair", Twi kukru-bin "roll-dung" (type of beetle), Polish moczy-morda "soak-muzzle" (drunkard), Ukrainian lomi-golovka "break-head" (puzzle), Russian verti-hvostka "spin-tail" (flirt), Italian faci-male "do-evil", Berber ssum-sitan "suck-cow" (insect), etc. In addition, across languages, when these words are applied to humans they are generally insulting or derogatory. (Some of these examples are taken from the linked article; others come from her book Evolutionary Syntax, which is not freely available.)

She dubs this a "two-slot grammar"—a non-recursive way of combining a noun with a verb—and proposes that it could have been the ancestor of modern recursive syntax, as a next step up from just giving names to things. The next step up from there is combining two of these "two-slot" structures: "monkey see monkey do", "first come first serve", "like father like son" (Twi wo dua wo twa "you sow you reap", Hmong cua daj cua dub "wind yellow wind black" meaning "storm"), and from there it's a short step to full recursive syntax.

In other words, according to Progovac, these "flat compounds" are a relic of an earlier stage in the evolution in syntax. They may be a true universal found in every language (much like many linguists say recursive syntax is).

EDIT: Sorry, I misunderstood what exactly you were asking about. The specific type you're talking about (with an object rather than a subject) are exocentric compounds, as opposed to endocentric compounds incorporating the subject. Progovac claims that the two should be analyzed similarly, but many other linguists disagree. If you're talking specifically about exocentric compounds, "killjoy", "tattletail", and "turncoat" qualify, while "crybaby", "tumbleweed", and "turntable" do not.

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    There is a fundamental difference between the ones that include the object (exocentric) and the ones that include the subject (endocentric). Very often, only one type is really used productively, and unlike Germanic languages where that’s the endocentric type, it is typologically most common that it’s the exocentric type (as also indicated by the fact that all the examples you cite from Progovac are exocentric). Romance and Slavic languages, for instance, hardly know the endocentric type at all. Aug 12 at 8:06
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    No such word as lomi-golovka ("ломи-головка"? there is "головоломка", but no verb here) in Russian; need a better example (probably "Перекати-поле"?). Esperanto example can be "partopreni".
    – Mark Kahn
    Aug 12 at 11:23
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    "scarecrow" is very different from "rattlesnake"! Aug 12 at 12:20
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    @LukeSawczak Right, "rattlesnake" seems short for "rattling snake" or "snake with a rattle".
    – Barmar
    Aug 12 at 13:55
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    @MarkKahn Hm, interesting. I'll admit I don't speak much Russian so I just took all the examples straight from the source (she cites Pugach et al 2006). Others on her list include perekati-pole as you mentioned, but also verti-hvostka and sorvi-golova; do those sound more natural?
    – Draconis
    Aug 12 at 15:59

A comment to Anu Garg's A-Word-A-Day suggested that these might be known as 'tosspot' words, which has become a recurring theme on AWAD. The term is slowly spreading to blogs, but I don't know if it's made it into any 'serious' publications.

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    Pickpocket compounds is what I’ve mostly heard, but that too is not a standardised term by any means, just a random example someone used at some point and now some more people use it here and there. Aug 12 at 16:40
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    A tosspot is a type of pot. A scarecrow is not a type of crow. The OP is asking about verbs conjoined with their object. Pickpocket would indeed be a better example! Aug 12 at 20:25
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    @JamesMartin A tosspot is a person, not a pot. It’s someone who tosses [= drinks] their pot [of ale]. Aug 13 at 6:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks Janus and apologies Aakash! I was under a complete misapprehension there! At least I've learnt something this morning. Following this through Wiktionary even led me to the rarer "squeeze-grape" which I enjoyed. Aug 13 at 10:18

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