I have written a story for children in Persian. Somewhere in the story, I have mentioned "pear". "Pear" In Farsi is gool-abbi, which translates literally as "blue flower". I have mentioned that as something that is neither blue nor a flower. Now I am about to translate the book into English and am looking for an exocentric compound in English that a 6- or 7-year-old English-speaking child can understand easily.

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    A little confused about what you are asking here. Are you asking for an exocentric compound that means "pear"?
    – pavja2
    Jun 3 '14 at 18:40
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    @pavja2: I suspect he means something like the "Holy Roman Empire" which was said not to be holy, Roman or an empire. But something children would appreciate.
    – Henry
    Jun 3 '14 at 18:43
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    How about "pineapple"? Jun 3 '14 at 18:45
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    Lovely question, and thank-you for introducing me to the terms exocentric and endocentric.
    – AndrewC
    Jun 3 '14 at 19:01
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    @IlmariKaronen In general conversation I know very few people who make the distinction between pines, firs, spruce, etc. eg "We cut down the pine tree for Christmas yesterday." "What kind?" "A blue spruce." Jun 5 '14 at 13:19

12 Answers 12


One suggestion would be buttercup, which is neither butter (though it is yellow) nor a cup (though I suppose the flower is vaguely cup-shaped).


The line between endocentric and exocentric compounds is not always clear. For example, word meanings change. Today, a footprint is neither a foot nor a print, but print referred originally to any kind of mark or stamp, and thus footprint would have been endocentric. In other cases, the component retains its meaning as a standalone word, but it is overshadowed by a more common usage. A screwdriver is neither a screw nor a driver, in the sense of driver as the operator of a vehicle, but then driver refers to something which impels, as a screwdriver certainly does. And many compounds are analogies to begin with. An oxbow lake is neither an ox nor a bow, but was named because it is the same shape as a type of collar for an ox. Still other words appear to be compounds, but are not: polemarch is borrowed from ancient Greek, not from the union of pole and march. And so there is room to argue about the suitability of words like railroad, doughnut, headphone, skyscraper, gumdrop, and many others.

For children, it may be good enough to stick to contemporary uses, in which case I think the following should be uncontroversial:

Animals: butterfly, dragonfly, firefox, hedgehog, polecat, seahorse

Plants/flowers: bluebell, catnip, forget-me-not, honeydew, pineapple, snapdragon

Objects/Materials: cardboard, dreadnought, matchbook, moonshine, sawdust, touchstone, turtleneck, wardrobe

People: birdbrain, egghead, litterbug, pickpocket

Activities: brainstorm, fanfare, hogwash, honeymoon, potluck, shorthand

Places: carport, speakeasy

Other: humdrum

  • Many thanks indeed. Your answer was an excellent lesson for me, and now, I have plenty to choose from. Jun 3 '14 at 20:10
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    Actually, I would describe all your animal examples as endocentric but metaphorical. A butterfly is not literally a fly, it is true, but it is something like a kind of fly. Ditto for pineapple and matchbook. This is a quite different semantic process from most of the other words: catnip does not in any way resemble a kind of nip (indeed, I don't know what that would mean). I would describe only the latter class as exocentric.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 3 '14 at 20:31
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    Hmmm … footprint is quite endocentric to me. It is a kind of print. Jun 3 '14 at 23:29
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    It’s not a type of print in that sense, no. But it is a type of print. I don’t think it ‘counts’ as “not a type of x or y” just because y also has another definition. Shaving cream is still a type of cream even though it’s never been near a cow’s udder, and a criminal offence is still a type of offence even though no one felt offended. Jun 3 '14 at 23:54
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    Firefox? I found this Wkipedia redirect, but before that I only knew the web browser name. So that one could be seen as "controversial" for children. (A bit like asking kids to spell a word whose sole raison d'être seems to be raising the spelling bee bar! :) Jun 4 '14 at 0:16

Mushroom was a word which I loved as a small child, there is no room in mush 1
A type of mushroom is a toadstool, which is neither a frog nor a type of chair or poo (stool)

And there is the silly old pun which still raises a smile.

Q: Why did the Mushroom get invited to all the parties?
A: Because he's a fungi! (fun guy)

Q: Why did the fungi leave the party?
A: There wasn't mushroom.


Q: Why do toadstools grow so closely together?
A: Because they don't need mushroom

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    Your jokes are in spore taste. ;)
    – MT_Head
    Jun 4 '14 at 2:31

Here are a group of compound words that can fit in the form "An xy is neither x nor y"

peanut (not a nut, but a legume)

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    A peanut is not a nut, but is arguably a pea. It's part of the same subfamily of plants as the pea, the sweet pea, the chick pea, the black-eyed pea, etc.
    – tobyink
    Jun 3 '14 at 23:16
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    Of course a peanut is a nut—colloquially speaking. You find it with the other nuts in supermarkets, in bags with mixed nuts, etc. In common parlance, a peanut is a type of nut. Its exact botanical taxonomy is irrelevant. Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and many others are not berries, either; but they’re still berries in normal usage. I’d also call a pancake endocentric—it is a type of cake, albeit an unusual one. Jun 3 '14 at 23:26
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    Tadpole, earwig, and snapdragon are like good suggestions. The others seem to be exocentric only if one is overly-literal. Jun 4 '14 at 8:07
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    A snapdragon is not a dragon?!?!? Jun 4 '14 at 8:29
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - you'll often find raisins in bags of mixed nuts. Doesn't make them nuts. The distinction between peanuts and true nuts is quite important to people who are allergic to one or the other (or indeed both). But that wasn't the main point of my comment, which was that the assertion "an xy is neither x nor y" does not seem to apply where xy=peanut.
    – tobyink
    Jun 5 '14 at 0:08

I didn't see grapefruit listed. While it is a fruit, it has nothing to do with grapes. Do both parts of the compound word have to be contradictory?

  • The Library of Congress says, “It is believed that the name refers to the manner in which grapefruit grows in clusters on a tree.” I found that site at Wikipedia.
    – Scott
    Jun 3 '14 at 22:34
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    I've always found "grapefruit" a particularly bizarre name. I can understand, say, breadfruit because you're saying "it's like bread, but it's a fruit". With grapefruit you're saying, "it's like a grape, but it's a fruit". Yet grapes are already a fruit!
    – tobyink
    Jun 3 '14 at 23:18

I see other people are submitting half answers, so here are a few more:

  • A “hot dot” is not a dog (and it needn’t be hot).
  • A “hamburger” isn’t (supposed to be) made of ham.1
  • While “strawberries” are berries, they have nothing to do with straw.  (Except if they do; see discussions at Yahoo! Answers and Buzzle, with a dissenting minority report at Snopes.)
  • You go to the “bathroom” for other reasons than to take a bath.  Very few bathrooms contain bath tubs.  (This one may be specific to American English.)
  • And conversely, for the un-Americans (☺), “water closet”, which isn’t very much like any other closet.

1 A slightly amusing anecdote that might be a better fit on ELL:  I know somebody from India, so English is his second (at least) language, and he’s a vegetarian.  He knows what (ham)burgers are, and he knows that a “veggie-burger” is a burger made of vegetables – so he once ordered a “cheeseburger”, expecting it to be a vegetarian burger made of cheese and other non-meat products.

  • In Holland, there are lots of houses with a WC where other houses have a closet: under the stairs. Jun 5 '14 at 11:02
  • Hamburg-er, like frankfurt-er, originally denoted a German city of origin, not the content of the food. Jun 10 '14 at 22:47

If you're targeting British children then ladybird works quite nicely. Unfortunately the Americans more sensibly call it a ladybug.

6- and 7-year-olds might also like shampoo; it's up to you whether you feel that lowers the tone of your book too much.


I'd suggest an alligator pear, which is neither an alligator (though it's green), nor a pear (though it's pear-shaped).

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    I can't imagine any 7 year olds have ever heard of an alligator pear. I certainly haven't.
    – Mordred
    Jun 4 '14 at 1:58

The love apple is a still-acceptable synonym for the tomato.

Not an apple, and I for one don't love them.


Perhaps a nice word for what you are describing would be "Pumpkin". English speakers often use it as an endearing nickname, although it is a discreet type of fruit that comes from a romance root meaning "large melon".


I've been racking my brains for days, knowing there was a word whose apparent etymology was nonsense, that had amused me as a child.

At last it came to me: a carpet is neither a car nor a pet, nor indeed anything remotely to do with with either of them.

  • Though magic carpet somehow is a kind of car! :) Jun 9 '14 at 18:14
  • One you can keep as a pet, perhaps?
    – teedyay
    Jun 10 '14 at 20:21

Children of that age would probably be familiar with jokes that rely on a sandwich being neither sand nor a witch. The spelling's not perfect, but I think it works well enough.

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