Linguistic Geekitude

Peter and I wound up talking for something like half an hour the other day about whether or not “Christmas tree light repairman” is a word in English. (It is one in German, which is how the matter came up.)
His blog entry explains things pretty thoroughly, I think. I do, however, still maintain that I’m right – “Christmas tree light repairman” is four words, not one.
Unnervingly enough, everything I look up to support my assertion is pretty inconclusive (see his dictionary samples) . For example: Quoth The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, “A noun is a word that names a person, place, thing, or abstraction. … Compound nouns are nouns made up of more than one word: razzle-dazzle, bedroom, cream puff, toothache, bubble bath, nuit blanche, she-wolf, shadowboxing, guardian angel, gun control, amour-propre, white-collar worker…” So, “Christmas tree light repairman” is a compound noun (it names a person or an abstraction, I think). But is it a word? Well, it’s made up of words, so it should be something else, right? But, a noun is a word and it’s a word, so…
This is why being a grammar/language geek is at once awesome and frustrating. Ultimately, this is all meaningless semantics, but I like closure. And since I have a strong appeal to authority, I like it when authorities (like dictionaries) are conclusive. But in this case, they’re not. Sigh.

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4 Responses to Linguistic Geekitude

  1. Alex Summers says:

    Compound nouns are a tricky aspect of English, because they are easily created and destroyed, and have three different forms (separate words, hyphenated, non-hyphenated).
    It is not unusual that, over time, a compound noun moves through these three phases as it becomes more common. E.g., bed room -> bed-room -> bedroom.
    In each of these cases, you are modifying one noun (“room”) with another word which, while in this case a noun itself, is acting as an adjective. What kind of room? The bed kind.
    All that having been said, I think you’re right. “Bed room” is no more a single word than “square room” is, regardless of the fact that the concept has of late become so common that it is described with the single word “bedroom.” But the exact division between words can be determined by many methods, and there is sometimes disagreement between them.
    However, if you’d like an appeal to authority, I’ll present myself as one, having been an editor (the final authority on such questions, at least with respect to a particular publication). I’d agree that “Christmas tree light repairman” is, or at least could be, a term, but it is clearly four words. Or possibly three; “Christmas tree” might qualify as one, especially if it were hyphenated.

  2. Dadster says:

    “Christmas tree light repairman” is a noun — a compound noun. But it is four words. These are disparate categories. Noun is a grammatical role; word is a unit of language etc (see wikipedia).

  3. Za3k says:

    I’d have to agree with Dadster on this one.

  4. Ealasaid says:

    Thanks, Alex and Dad! I love having awesome readers. You guys rock. I feel a lot better now. :)