This is a bit hard to explain, so let's try an example.

There is something called "rock art", which means human-made markings placed on natural stone.

Those two words when put together have a specific meaning. The name on the other hand may imply that any art made of rocks could be called rock art.

Is there any way to describe this type of name/phrase?

THE DUPLICATE YOU PICKED IS NOT THE SAME QUESTION. This isn't about an adjective. It's about a group of words that have a specific meaning that are more than the sum of their parts.

  • 1
    Perhaps, "ambiguous" would work.
    – user98990
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 23:05
  • It might also mean," art related to rock music."
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 23:10
  • Maybe it's not the best example, but let's say it wasn't ambiguous, and was only meant to be used in that one way?
    – stackers
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 23:14
  • 1
    Does this work as an example? A 'black bird' is any bird judged to be black. However, a 'blackbird' is a member of Turdus merula or closely related species/subspecies. And females and juveniles are usually not black. Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 15:28
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth, yes exactly. you could say "a crow is a blackbird", but you would be wrong
    – stackers
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 15:50

4 Answers 4


An "idiom" has an idiosyncratic meaning which cannot be deduced from the meanings of its parts. A complex expression whose meaning can be deduced from the meanings of its parts is "compositional". An idiom is, accordingly, non-compositional.

  • 1
    There are other definitions of 'idiom'; some analyses allow for 'semi-transparent' and even 'transparent' idioms. Compounds are not usually called idioms, and may not be predictable from their constituent parts. Not all blackbirds are black birds, for instance. Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 23:09
  • I don't know if idiom is the right word, because to me it sounds like idiom means it could not be determined by looking at the phrase, but in my case it COULD, but the phrase just isn't specific enough to convey the full meaning.
    – stackers
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 23:17
  • @stackers 'Idiom' or 'idiomatic' captures that the meaning of the collection is more than the combination of the meanings of the separate words. What is opaque, or can't be deduced, is the 'more' part. It could be just a tiny bit more depending on context (the 'White House' is definitely white and definitely a house, but those two words don't indicate that it is also special for US government), or it could be -a lot- more (a 'hot dog' is probably a bit warm but hopefully has nothing to do with a canine).
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 14:32

There is a property shown by some but not all two-word strings known as intersectiveness {see 'Associative adjectives in English and the lexicon–syntax interface' by Heinz J Giegerich (p22ff), and 15.3: Non-intersective adjectives; Paul Kroeger; Dallas International University via Language Library Press, for example.

Looking at possibilities for [adjective + noun] pairs:

  • A small house is small and a house.

  • A heavy smoker need not be heavy but is a smoker.

  • A fake diamond is fake but is not a diamond.

  • The English horn is neither English in origin nor a horn.

Only the first example above shows intersection; 'heavy smoker' etc are non-intersective.

  • The only Google results for the second example shows your answer and two spammy sites
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 15:03
  • No, @Mari-Lou A, it is no longer open access. I've added a current link to an alternative source, but will leave the Giegerich reference as the article is good. If this were more than a request for a name, I'd add more detail, but I'm pretty sure intersectiveness has been covered in detail here elsewhere. term for words that appear to mean something that they don't, for instance. Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 15:50

There is a term in Signal Engineering known as Aliasing.


In signal processing and related disciplines, aliasing is an effect that causes different signals to become indistinguishable (or aliases of one another) when sampled.

Therefore, the word aliasing when applied to linguistics, would mean words and phrases that could be used deceptively to mean one thing, and then bait-and-switched to mean another.

Therefore, we should be able to use alias as

  • aliasing of words, phrases and their messages.

The effects of message aliasing would be a blurred and ambiguous perspective of the message or messages.


8 years later… the word is 'amphiboly'

Under the heading of Verbal Fallacies by Brittanica

(2) Amphiboly occurs when the grammar of a statement is such that several distinct meanings can obtain (example: “The governor says, ‘Save soap and waste paper.’ So soap is more valuable than paper.”).

  • 3
    Can you add a definition from some reliable source? Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 13:43
  • Hello, Paul. Though 'a heavy smoker' is certainly inherently ambiguous (though usually defaults to 'one who smokes heavily'), 'a potential witness' isn't. It's a string fulfilling OP's requirement, but not an example of amphiboly. Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 13:47
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth, while nobody but a scientifically-minded pedant would think of a potential witness as a person who observed an electrical potential (better known as voltage), such a person might exist. More seriously, I read OP's question as being about ambiguous strings.
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 14:05
  • @Peter I think the 'ambiguity' tag was already available in 2015; OP doesn't select it. And 'let's say it wasn't ambiguous, and was only meant to be used in that one way' could be taken to be part of the question (an artist manqué isn't an artist, and a Guinea pig isn't a pig, but there is no ambiguity involved here). Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 14:21
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth, as I read the question it is about noun compounds which are normally understood in one way but can be understood differently. While I don't intend to down-vote the suggestion, to me amphiboly refers to a much wider range of ambiguous expressions. I don't think you can draw conclusions from the tags - it can take a fair bit of experience to choose the best tags.
    – Peter
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 15:00

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