I would like the terminology for, and information regarding, a specific type of adjective-noun construct. It consists of noun preceded by an adjective that completely/radically changes the meaning and/or class of the noun.

Example: a year is a unit of time, but when preceded by light, the meaning is not any sort of year or time, but becomes a unit of distance. The meaning of the noun is not merely refined or modified, but the meaning becomes something entirely different.

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    Another example is the ounce: if it's a fluid ounce, it becomes a volume instead of a weight :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 8:03
  • I've posted a follow-on question Criteria used to determine if a "Chinese inch" is an "inch"? This is another example involving units of measurement. I wonder if this is only coincidental. Hmm...
    – Johnny
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 2:16

1 Answer 1


The examples you give are 'compound nouns'. Some are more transparent (ie predictable from the components) than others.

Thus 'blackbird' (Turdus merula) seems quite transparent (no pun intended), until you see a brown one. You can have a brown blackbird, but not a brown black bird. So the term 'blackbird' might be classed as semi-transparent. 'Football' is a transparent compound, whereas 'light year' is somewhere between semi-transparent and opaque. As an obvious example, contrast 'blueberries' with 'strawberries' [the first totally transparent, the second semi-transparent].

An example of an opaque idiom (the meaning being [virtually] impossible to guess from constituent parts), 'kick the bucket' = 'die'. I'm not sure that any compound word is as opaque as this.

There are other terms describing the actual semantics involved in compounding words. With 'light year', the compound is not endocentric (the 'head' surely being 'year', whose sense is not retained in the compounding – contrast 'bird' in 'blackbird'). It is exocentric:

exocentric compound: A+B denotes a special kind of an unexpressed semantic head: 'skinhead', 'paleface' (head: 'person') [/ 'light year' (head: 'distance')] [Wikipedia]

  • I've posted a follow-on question: Criteria used to determine if a "Chinese inch" is an "inch"? I am still a bit unclear on how compounding changes meaning, and on the evolution of an original term due to coinage of a later compound.
    – Johnny
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 2:08
  • If you look up articles on compounding, especially 'compound adjectives', you will find that there is a bewildering assortment of types; checking each compound individually for meaning is essential. Commented May 14, 2014 at 8:29

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