English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Is this a hard/fast rule, or are there exceptions?

As he had done during oral argument in January, the Chief Justice used his opinion to discuss how words and their derivatives can mean very different things, or very similar things, and so need to be read in context. 'Corny,' for example, has little to do with 'corn,' the opinion suggested

share|improve this question
Think this question may be a bit vague. What do you mean by "reflect the meaning"? If I say "the overweight policeman", is your idea that "overweight" intrinsically represents part of the meaning of "policeman"? Perhaps you could give an example of what led you to this question? – Neil Coffey Mar 2 '11 at 4:24
I guess he is referring to words that are both adjectives and nouns (e.g., yellow), or to words like coward-cowardly. – kiamlaluno Mar 2 '11 at 5:00
Another vote for "too vague." Question requires clarification. – The Raven Mar 2 '11 at 12:01
@ArthurRex: You know, if you just took a few moments to be more specific, include some examples, and make it clear what exactly you are talking about, this could perhaps be a very interesting question. – Kosmonaut Mar 2 '11 at 14:14
I was about to vote close, but I wanted to give the OP a chance to clarify his question, as requested in the comments above. It is beyond me why he should choose not to do so. – Cerberus Mar 2 '11 at 18:29
up vote 1 down vote accepted

As a general rule, adjectives are likely to reflect the meaning of the corresponding noun if they're derived via a derivational suffix (-al, -ial, -ous, -ful, -worthy etc) that is still productive. And vice versa if the noun is derived using a productive suffix (-ness).

If the noun isn't actually derived from the related adjective, or derived in a way that isn't very productive, there's probably more chance of one of the words taking on a figurative meaning without the other necessarily following suit. In the case of yellow, I think you could consider that the adjective essentially "came first" and isn't derived from the noun as such; notice that yellowness, derived productively from yellow, can have the related figurative meaning of "cowardliness".

share|improve this answer

Generally speaking, adjectives do not reflect the meaning of the nouns from which they derive. For example, yellow as adjective means also cowardly, but yellow as noun does not mean coward; yellow as adjective has also the archaic meaning of "showing jealousy or suspicion", while yellow as noun doesn't mean "who shows jealousy or suspicion".

share|improve this answer
In this case, the adjective 'yellow' is a shortened version of 'yellow-bellied sap sucker, marmot, waxbill, warbler, robin...', so the adjective does originally have the same meaning as the noun from which it derives. – oosterwal Mar 4 '11 at 2:55

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.