Is there a name for words that appear to mean something other than their actual meaning?

For example:

  • A "paper boy" is not a boy made of paper.
  • A "greenhouse" is not a house that is coloured green.
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    A "false friend" is a word in another language that looks like a word in your own language but means something slightly (or totally) different. – Mitch Mar 3 '14 at 13:20
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    Very nice question, though I have no answer. I immediately thought of the advertisement for a piece of furniture that caused some trouble - it advertised a "black kid's desk". – oerkelens Mar 3 '14 at 14:08
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    @CarlWitthoft: I suggested 'false friend' as what not to call what the OP is after. I think there is no word for what the OP is after. It assumes, I think wrongly, that all adjectives work literally and directly. An adjective simply qualifies and constrains the noun, but in many possible ways. A 'paper boy' is a boy that has something to do with paper (or, non-literally, newspaper). Most things are not so literal. – Mitch Mar 3 '14 at 16:20
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    @Mitch "false cognate" is another term for essentially the same concept. – Kyle Strand Mar 3 '14 at 19:48
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    "Girl Scout Cookies" are not made from real Girl Scouts. – SQB Mar 4 '14 at 9:03

They are generally an example of exocentric compound.

However, in another common type of compound, the exocentric or (known as a bahuvrihi compound in the Sanskrit tradition), the semantic head is not explicitly expressed.

A redhead, for example, is not a kind of head, but is a person with red hair.

Similarly, a blockhead is also not a head, but a person with a head that is as hard and unreceptive as a block (i.e. stupid).

And, outside of veterinary surgery, a lionheart is not a type of heart, but a person with a heart like a lion (in its bravery, courage, fearlessness, etc.).

More details and types of exocentric compounds:


And if we want to be creative, we can call them "pseudo double-entendre". A phrase pretending to be a double entendre. And perhaps it becomes "double-pretendre".

  • Wouldn't the OP examples be endocentric, because the compound fulfills the same linguistic function as one of its parts: paper boy is grammatically interchangeable with boy as well as being a type of boy, and greenhouse is a type of house. I guess a greenhouse could be a lean-to addition to a house. – Bob Stein Mar 4 '14 at 2:02
  • @BobStein: endocentric is opposite of what he is asking. endocentric compounds have the basic meaning of the whole compound. For example: doghouse. It is a house for a dog. – ermanen Mar 4 '14 at 2:20
  • From Penn State: "...endocentric compounds have one constituent serving as “head” of the complex word... For example, mailman is a subset of the semantic category, man, and is of syntactic category noun, since the head "man" is a noun. Exocentric compounds such as scarecrow do not have an overt semantic head, since scarecrow is not a subset of the category crow." – Bob Stein Mar 4 '14 at 14:42
  • From your Bauer paper: "Most compounds in English are endocentric, that is, one of the elements (typically the right-hand element) is the head of the construction. Headedness is shown most clearly by hyponymy: the compound as a whole is a hyponym of its head. For example, traffic-light is a hyponym of light, but not a hyponym of traffic." (Hyponym means subset: "A word of more specific meaning than a general or superordinate term applicable to it. For example, spoon is a hyponym of cutlery.") – Bob Stein Mar 4 '14 at 15:59

As @CarlWitthoft points out there may be no single term for words used with alternative meanings, but there are terms that categorize how the alternate meaning came about. You may have many other examples in mind, but both the ones you gave are endocentric compounds in which one aspect of a thing serves to identify the whole. A specific term for this category of repurposed meaning is metronym.

"Paper boy" is an open compound of a metronym. The product newspaper is identified by an aspect -- that it's made of paper (as in "I read the paper today). The compound paper boy implies a boy who delivers the (news)paper by idiomatic convention.

"Greenhouse" is a closed compounded metronym, where the thing (greenhouse) is identified by one of its features -- that it contains green plants.


You may be looking for 'misnomer', but that word is used mostly for names, if I'm not mistaken.
Misnomer literally means 'wrong name'.

However, the examples you've given aren't really misnomers because a paper-boy does deliver paper, and I think it's fairly obvious to anyone that you mean 'paper-delivery boy' when you say paper-boy.
Also, a greenhouse (different from 'green house' - which would mean a green-coloured house) is named so because it contains plants.

An example of a misnomer is 'koala bear'. Koala bears are not bears and they aren't related to them either.

Other words which also mean 'misnomer' are: 'misname' and 'catachresis', but misnomer is more common than both.

  • I think the distinction is that a "paper doll" describes a quality of the noun, while a "paper boy" describes the functionality of the noun. However, I don't know of a word which distinguishes those two types of adjective. – Carl Witthoft Mar 3 '14 at 14:49

ermanen covers the solid compounds, but there are two-word examples.

Non-semantically-predicative adjectives are adjectives that don't (strictly) modify the noun they're 'coupled' with (if there even is one). They may modify an understood noun, or even reference a state pertaining to the noun.

A quiet drink means that the surroundings are quiet.

A heavy smoker's smoking is heavy.

A proud occasion means that some proud people are attending.

A former president isn't necessarily the president of anything now. His presidency 'is former'.

A fake gun isn't a literal gun according to the primary sense. It's a member of the set of fake artefacts.

An invalid toilet is a toilet for invalid people.

A mere youth is a member of the powerless, cashless, hapless class of youths (Yeah, right).

The terms inherent and non-inherent are sometimes used, but there are better treatments.

This is covered in detail at Wordwizard.

There are other attributive uses of adjectives where the adjective takes a semantic role other than its usual one.

Evaluative adjectives such as good also have an interpretation relative to the noun they modify: As Aristotle pointed out, a good thief is not usually a good man.

(E E Coppock)

So we wouldn't say a good thief is good. This is the non-intersective property.

  • Exocentric is a type of semantic classification of compounds. So it can be applied to not only solid but also hyphenated and open compounds. The examples from Wikipedia was solid compounds only. – ermanen Mar 3 '14 at 17:33
  • Yes. I avoided the open compound issue because it's tricky. A quiet drink is hardly an example of an open compound, but is fake gun one lexeme or two? It's non-intersective (not referring to a true gun: a fake gun is fake but isn't a gun). OP's question would even allow for metaphors, irony, and codes, though his examples are obviously exocentric compounds. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 3 '14 at 20:44

The term that immediately came to mind was "doublespeak", which I first encountered reading George Orwell's classic book Nineteen Eighty-Four. According to the Wikipedia article about the term:

Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words.

While Orwell was obviously referring to when they're used for deceptive, intentionally misleading, purposes — I think the basic concept could broadened to be equally applicable to words like the two examples in your question, except in their case it's being done for descriptive purposes, rather than political or other nefarious reasons.

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