Created 10.09.2015 by Rhonda Boyer


Compound words are formed by joining two or more free morphemes to create a new word. Compounds occur in three different forms: two or more free morphemes “pushed” together to form the new word also referred to as solid form, two or more free morphemes hyphenated to form the new word also referred to as hyphenated form, or two or more free morphemes written as distinct words with meaning derived by consideration of both words within the context of their usage also referred to as open form (Curzan 110-111; McArthur).

Compounds created by joining two or more free morphemes into a solid form are quite common. Examples include horseshoe (horse + shoe), timetable (time + table), homegirl (home + girl) and backwoodsman (back + woods + man).

The Anglo-Saxon poet unlocked his poetic muse, or wordhord (word + hord) from Old English meaning word hoard to sing about the human condition. Old English also provided insight to their understanding of the physical body in the compound banhus (bone-house) and the spiritual body in the compound sawolhus (soul-house) (Curzan 111).

Shakespeare's Use of Solid Compound Words

Shakespeare is credited with the compound word barefaced meaning uncovered in Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5) when Orphelia sings:

They bore him barefaced on the bier,

Hey, non nonny, nonny, hey, nonny,

And in his grave rained many a tear.

Fare you well, my dove.

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And the Bard also introduced bloodstained in Henry IV, Part I (Act I, Scene 3):

HOTSPUR: Three times they breathed and three times did they drink,
Upon agreement, of swift Severn’s flood;
Who, then, affrighted with their bloody looks,
Ran fearfully among the trembling reeds,
And his his crisp head in the hollow bank,
Bloodstained with these valiant combatants.

Compounds created by joining two or more free morphemes with a hyphen to form the new word appear in Junot Diaz’s “The Pura Principle.” One example from this short story is go-round meaning time: “When he’d come home from the hospital this second go-round . . .” (Diaz 95). Another example from this short story is event-horizon meaning inaccessible (from the science surrounding black holes) where "nothing inside the event horizon can ever cross the boundary and escape beyond it" (Britannica): “My mom wasn’t the effusive type anyway, had one of those event-horizon personalities – s*** just fell into her and you never really knew how she felt about it“ (Diaz 93). The image below is of an event-horizon in a black hole in the Milkyway and provides a visual of how inaccessible the mother's personality is from the son's point of view.
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Compounds may also be created by two or more free morphemes written as separate side-by-side words with the meaning derived by consideration of both words within the context of their usage. Examples include bean bag (a piece of furniture as opposed to a bag used for beans) and photo bomb (a picture that is spoiled as opposed to an exploding photograph or photograph of a bomb).


Before there were English compounds, there were Greek, Latin, German, and French compounds that influenced the forms of English compounds (McArthur):
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When compound words are spoken, the stress is usually placed on the first morpheme (TEApot, BLACKbird) or in the first stressed syllable of the first word (eMERgency plan, RePUBlican Party) and the complete pronunciation of the word has a falling intonation (McArthur). The use of stress allows the speaker and the listener to discern the difference between a compound word and phrases that have equal stress. For example, the adjectival phrase white house receives equal stress on both words whereas the White House receives stress on the first word white. Take a moment to pronounce the following words: keynotes at the conference, key notes in the musical score; greenhouse emissions, the green house on the corner.
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The pronunciation of multiple compounds follows the same pattern of stressed and falling intonation by grouping compounds together. McArthur provides the following example: "Coventry car factory strike committee policy decision, analyzable as (((COventry) (CAR factory)) ((STRIKE committee) (POLicy decision)))."

Dr. Seuss' Use of Multiple Compounds

Read the following passage from Dr. Seuss' Fox in Socks (1965), paying attention to where stress is emphasized:

What do you know about tweetle beetles? Well…
When tweetle beetles fight, it's called a tweetle beetle battle.
And when they battle in a puddle, it's a tweetle beetle puddle battle.
AND when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle, they call it a tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle.
AND when beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle
they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle.


When compound words are written, attention is given to the previously discussed forms: solid, hyphenated, and open. "Decisions about written compounds are more rule-of-thumb than rule . . . The older and shorter a noun/noun or noun/adjective compound, the more likely it is to be solid: rattlesnake. The newer and longer it is, the more likely it is to be open: population explosion. Beyond that, the traditional practice appears to be, ‘When in doubt, use a hyphen’" (McArthur).


Another word formation technique related to compounding is blending. Blends require two or more words to be joined after clipping one or more of the words usually at its morphemic boundary (Curzan 114).
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A blend that demonstrates compounding two morphemes, one of which is clipped, is nickelodeon. Nickelodeon is formed by combining nickel defined as five cents with melodeon, the Greek word for “theater” (Merriam Webster). The “me” in melodeon is clipped prior to the two words being merged. Long before there was a cable cartoon network named Nickelodeon, a nickelodeon was “an early movie theater for which admission usually cost five cents” (Merriam Webster) that played short films or peep shows.
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The word’s meaning expanded to include an early version of a jukebox as captured in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” when the characters enter a bar with “dancing space in the middle” (6) and “all sat down at a board table next to the nickelodeon” (6) in which “the children’s mother put a dime” (6) – a very expensive nickelodeon.
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Reminds me of Joan Jett’s musical rendition, “I love rock ‘n’ roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby” decades later (Merrill 1982).

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Compounds expand and enrich the English language. Without them we would have to use different words for mother-in-law, homeland, football, birthdays, and ice cream. The fusing of two or more free morphemes to form a new word is easy, but the association of a new meaning for the new word is one that takes time to be recognized and accepted into usage.

Works Cited

Carnegie Library of Pittsburg. "Downtown Nickelodeon." 2014. Image. 8 Oct. 2015. <>.

Crowther, John, ed. “No Fear Hamlet.” SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <>.

Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams. “English Morphology.” How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 98-127. Print.

Diaz, Junot. “The Pura Principle.” This is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead, 2013. 93-121. Print.

Dr. Seuss, and Theodore Geisel. Fox in Socks. Random House: 1965.

"Event horizon." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2015. <>.

Kim, Arthur. "Shakespeare's English." Tumblr, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2015. <>.

McArthur, Tom. "Compound Words." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1998. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <>.

Mellinger, Axel. "Black_Hole_Milkyway.jpg." Universität Hildesheim, Space Time Travel. CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons, 28 Jun. 2010. Web. 09 Oct. 2015. <>.

Merrill, Allan, and Jake Hooker. “I Love Rock n Roll.” Arrows. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Boardwalk Records, 1982. 45-Record.

“Nickelodeon.” 2015. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <>.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1955. 1-23. Print.

Presenter Media. Image Library. Web. 8 Oct. 2015. <>.

Schmidt, John. "An Online Guide to Shakespeare the Neologist." Web. 9 Oct. 2015. <>.

Shprentz, Joel. 2014. Pinball Clicks. Image. 8 Oct. 2015. <>.