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?

  • 1
    Perhaps, "ambiguous" would work. – user98990 Jan 31 '15 at 23:05
  • It might also mean," art related to rock music." – Jim Jan 31 '15 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 Jan 31 '15 at 23:14
  • there are dozens of types of noun compounds, in terms of the relationships of the two nouns involved. They can vary a lot. My favorite example is snake bite versus pony ride. As for terminology, "non-compositional" is a term that applies to almost all noun compounds, unless you define one type as officially "compositional", which won't work for noun compounds. – John Lawler Feb 1 '15 at 16:32

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.

  • 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. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 31 '15 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 Jan 31 '15 at 23:17

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_ HEINZ J. GIEGERICH (p22ff)}.

Looking at 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.


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.

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