The Journal Gazette
Saturday, January 15, 2022 1:00 am

Combining words can compound description

Curtis Honeycutt

When is a door not a door? When it's ajar.

As an owner of a 19th century home, all of my doors are ajar. I'm plumb out of doors that shut properly.

Just as those wonky door puns make you groan, words can build on each other to form the architecture of an altogether different word.

Have you ever been accused of being a “motormouth”? I have. I am neither a “motor,” nor am I a “mouth.” Yet, I was called a motormouth. The compound word “motormouth” creates a new word with a different meaning.

This type of compound word is called a “possessive” (or bahuvrihi) compound. Possessive compounds follow this formula: (Person) having a (B) that is (A), where (A) modifies (B). Curtis has a mouth that is a motor. Motor + mouth. Yet, no one is saying that I'm either a motor or a mouth. They simply say, “He is a motormouth.”

I've also been called a “redhead.” Curtis has a head that is red. But, no one says, “Curtis has a head that is red.” They say, “Curtis is a redhead.”

I'm a “southpaw.” To say I have a “paw” that is “south” is a bit of a stretch. The term “southpaw” either comes from baseball or boxing, and sports columnists love to debate the etymology of southpaw. Let's just all agree it is synonymous with “left-handed.”

The more I think about it, the more I think of our English possessive compounds as brilliant shorthand. You see, we're all about the brevity of language to get a point across.

If you don't believe me, look at how much shorthand and emoji language appear in your text messages. Possessive compounds are a way to convey a bigger description in a compact package.

If you have trouble remembering what a possessive compound is, think about them as fighting words. Picture yourself in front of the school bully who is angling for a fight. He wants nothing more than to goad you to hit first. What's his next move? He goes into his tried-and-true formula to provoke flying fists: a cleverly woven string of insults.

He challenges you with, “You yellowbelly, airhead, halfwit, redneck, busybody, greedyguts, fancypants, muttonheaded lowlife!”

Those are fighting words, and you, as a result, are possessed to clear your name of these insults.

I'm no egghead, but I do like to nerd out on possessive compounds. And, while I don't take a highbrow approach to this topic, I'm no blockhead, either.

Curtis Honeycutt, aka The Grammar Guy, is a Noblesville-based syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of “Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life.” Find more at

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