I had a discussion with some friends yesterday about whether the term "ice cream cone" describes:

  • Simply the cone itself or
  • The cone plus the ice cream

Upon looking in several online dictionaries, I found out that both are acceptable definitions. Is there any sort of rule in English that describes this sort of behavior?

For example, a soup bowl may be described as a bowl intended for holding soup. If you take a soup bowl and instead put candy in it, which of the following is it?

  • Soup bowl with candy in it
  • Bowl with candy in it
  • Candy bowl

Surely there are other examples besides "ice cream cone" and "soup bowl". I'm just curious at what point the term leaves noun-adjunct + noun territory and becomes its own accepted noun?

  • 3
    Is tea water still tea water if I decide to make coffee?
    – oerkelens
    Sep 24, 2014 at 18:55
  • 1
    I still call them 'cornets', which is what ice-cream 'cones' were always called in Britain when I was a child. I think the Italians say 'cornetto', which sounds wonderfully musical and much better than 'cone'.
    – WS2
    Sep 24, 2014 at 18:58
  • @oerkelens apparently "tea water" is a certain mixture of honey and cinnamon powder, so yes. But an ice cream cone is basically a rolled up waffle cone, so one could make the argument that it's not an ice cream cone if you put yogurt in it, it's a yogurt cone.
    – Milliarde
    Sep 24, 2014 at 18:59
  • 1
    Suppose I let my ice cream melt; would it no longer be ice cream? Would it be "melted ice cream" or would I just call it "cream"? ;)
    – Blackhawk
    Sep 24, 2014 at 21:39
  • 1
    @WS2. Now, to me, a cornetto is a fancy pre-packaged ice-cream (i.e., it comes from the in-store fridge, rather than being made on the spot by the cashier), usually with lots of chocolate on it. It comes in a cardboard wrapping.
    – TRiG
    Sep 24, 2014 at 22:14

6 Answers 6


yes, the cone is an ice cream cone because it is a cone that can hold ice cream.

And it is a Soup Bowl with candy in it. You are describing the bowl to differentiate it from other bowls.

  • 1
    You could call it a candy bowl as well, to differentiate it from other bowls by its contents rather than by its form. It all depends on what distinctions you need to make to get your point across. That said, there is such a type of bowl that is a "bowl for soup" or a soup bowl, and there is certainly such a type of cone that is intended to hold ice cream, an "ice cream cone". On the other hand, you could call a traffic cone filled with ice cream an "ice cream cone", referring again to the contents rather than the form.
    – Wlerin
    Sep 25, 2014 at 0:36
  • 2
    I'd like to add that it's called "Ice cream cone" because the primary purpose is to hold ice cream - it's a cone designed to hold ice cream - not because it can hold ice cream. Meanwhile, it's still a long way to Ice Cream Rifle
    – Raestloz
    Sep 25, 2014 at 9:10

It is common to use nouns as modifiers of other nouns. The term ice cream serves that adjectival purpose, modifying cone.

The waffle cones and sugar cones that are traditionally used (at least in the US) to hold ice cream were designed for that purpose. While the cones could be, and are, used to hold other things (and may even be eaten plain, if one is so inclined), their most common usage serves to define them, regardless of how they are otherwise used.

When they hold frozen yogurt, they still are ice cream cones. Filled with jelly beans, likewise. But note that the cones are often referred to without the ice cream qualifier. They may be called sugar cones, waffle cones, cake cones or simply cones, as in the ice cream vendor's query, Cup or cone?

Many other noun/noun terms keep their primary designation even when the item is put to purposes other than those described in the modifier. A car park is still a car park even when there are no cars on it and it is being used to host a fair.

The dividing line is between a noun being used as a casual modifier and a noun/noun phrase becoming an established term is not bright. By definition, the primary noun has other uses or no noun modifier would be needed. But when a relatively fixed relationship has been established such that the modified noun now has a distinct and relatively stable meaning, the modified name sticks, even if the item is put to another purpose. A tea bag applied as a poultice is still a tea bag.


There's no hard and fast rule, it is a matter of utility. You want to refer to the object in the way that will best help the listener identify it. The other day I saw a stand at a festival selling an "ice cream cone full of fruit." In this case we have a well-known object with a new use. It would be harder to understand the reference if I called it a "fruit cone." On the other hand, you wouldn't refer to it as "the soup bowl full of candy," because it's easier in this case to identify the bowl by its function.

  • To be honest, "fruit cone" would probably be fine. Sure, you've never heard of a fruit cone before but the meaning is pretty obvious. (It's hard to imagine that the extra information that the cone itself is edible is crucial.) Sep 24, 2014 at 21:12
  • 1
    @david-richerby not sure about that. We have fruit rolls (not sure whether that's provincial, but they show up if you google them)... when you say "fruit cone", the first thing that comes to my mind is fruit roll material rolled into a cone shape.
    – Don Hatch
    Sep 25, 2014 at 1:46

A glovebox is still a glovebox when it doesn't have gloves in.

A rubbish bin doesn't change name when you empty it.

A handbag isn't called a bag when you put it down.

Objects are named according to their general usage, not the exact usage at the specific time you refer to them.

It is still an ice cream cone.

  • Fine, your examples are cases where general usage works and specific usage at the time doesn't. But then you go on to conclude that general usage is always the right answer, and specific usage never is ... that seems like a leap. Do you have a reason for saying that? People have given several examples where the exact-usage-at-the-specific-time-you-refer-to-them model seems to be a better choice in getting across the meaning one is intending to communicate; do you reject these for some reason?
    – Don Hatch
    Sep 25, 2014 at 2:00

A Tire Iron doesn't need to be attached to a tire. Ice-Cream in this context is an adjective and is used for describing a "kind-of" appellation, and dismissing the adjective makes it an incomplete descriptor. Like: pressure gauge, ironing board, jet fuel.


Hmm, well, in the UK, a cone designed to hold ice cream, with or without the ice cream present is called a cornet, though to be fair, I don't hear that term used in speech much any more. It's certainly the origin of the name 'Cornetto', a branded sugar or waffle cone with ice cream and sauce filling. When I was younger, if you said I'm going to have a cornet, it meant a cone with ice cream, as opposed to a wafer (two sheets of wafer with an ice cream filling) or an ice lolly; they are still sold empty, in packs, as cornets in the supermarkets. But 'cornet' refers to a specific type of cone, because there are two available for purchase - cornets, the original, wafer type, or waffle cones, the crisper, crunchier ones. Which means officially, empty cones are called cornets or waffle cones, well, in the UK anyway, though I'm sure most people just ask for 'ice cream cones' when wanting to buy some.

  • Though accurate, I would say this is largely historical usage now. I've not heard anyone call them anything other than an ice cream cone for years now. And I say this as someone who's over life's half-way mark.
    – Dan
    Sep 25, 2014 at 12:47
  • 1
    @DanSheppard You and me both on the halfway mark thing then - I would have agreed with you, certainly don't hear it said any more, but Waitrose still sells products called Cornets, as do the other major supermarkets.
    – bamboo
    Sep 25, 2014 at 12:49

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