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We are having an argument about whether naming a gym "Fat Fighters" communicates the right message. The name should suggest that they fight against fat (obviously). The "fat" is both noun and adjective and so in both usages

  • noun noun (kitchen sink) - fat fighter -> a fighter that is fat
  • adjective noun (tall man) - fat fighter -> a fighter that is fat

Similarly freedom fighter means fighting for freedom, not against freedom.

What is the correct meaning? What rules apply here? Is this a known collocation? Or simply a mistake? Does using it without the space (fatfighers) change the meaning?

  • On the other hand "child abusers" is generally understood to refer to abusive people who prey on children, not abusive people who are children; and "cop killers" is normally used to refer to people who kill police officers, not police officers who kill others. – Sven Yargs May 22 '15 at 8:26
  • Thanks for the examples. I knew there are some that suggest the other way around, but I could not come up with any. Is there any general rule that would help me identify such collocations? For example I can see that the nouns in your examples are verbal (verb based), but the nouns in my "kitchen sink" example is not. Or is this just an accident? – nohwnd May 22 '15 at 8:39
  • I would recommend doing a search on YouTube for "Little Britain Fat Fighters". – dangph May 22 '15 at 9:49
  • Whichever you want. – Hot Licks May 22 '15 at 12:01
  • What do you mean by "they are fatty"? Like a fatty liver? Or do you mean they are overweight people? FWIW, "fatty" is a derogatory term that is no more acceptable to call another person than "Stretch" for a tall person or "Shrimpy" for a small-statured person. – Kristina Lopez May 22 '15 at 14:06
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As is so often the case, context is key. If you operate a gym, it is likely that people will interpret Fat Fighters as fighters against (being) fat.

However, if you open a sumo wrestling school, it might be seen as a pejorative description of your athletes (and I doubt it would be very popular!).

If you start a lobby organisation to increase the amount of fat in our diet, it could even be understood as fighters for fat.

The rules that come into play are an intricate web of semantics and interpretation. When we read an ambiguous expression, we usually try to interpret it in such a way that it makes most sense in the given context.

This is a very strong principle, so strong that many speakers have absolutely no problem understanding the exact opposite of what is being said, even if what is said is not even ambiguous, as for example in the (in my eyes terrible)

I could care less.

Most speakers actually mean that they could not care less! Because that is the meaning that, in context, makes much more sense than the actual meaning, most listeners will actually understand the not care less without any problem.

In the case of xyz fighters, we employ the same semantic filter.

If xyz is something we assume to be negative, and the fighters are assumed to do something positive, we interpret the phrase as fighters against xyz:

The NYPD has organized a special unit of corruption fighters. -> fighters against corruption

If xyz is negative, and we assume the fighters are doing something negative, they are thought to fight for xyz:

IS fighters advance in Syria. -> fighters for (or of) IS

If xyz is positive, and we assume again positive action from the fighters, they are fighting for it. Note that if xyz is an (almost) universally accepted positive thing, it is very hard to assume anyone fighting against it!

Freedom fighters. I am hard pressed to find a context in which that last example could imply people fighting against freedom (if they are doing so, in our eyes, we are likely to call them by another name!)

On top of that, if xyz can be interpreted as an adjective to describe the fighters, as in the case of fat, we make similar assumptions from the context to interpret it as an adjective or an attributive noun.

I don't think this occurs very often, but in the cases that it does occur, it seems that the interpretation mechanism is a bit weaker than with the for/against distinction if both uses of xyz make sense.

For instance, in

Great fighters

Nobody would probably interpret that in any context as people that fight (against) "the great", it seems to only make sense to read that as fighters that are great.

With fat you do have a more obvious ambiguity, but ensuring the correct context should avoid any but deliberate misinterpretation.

  • Thanks for taking time to write such a great explanation! – nohwnd May 22 '15 at 8:44
  • Well, just writing "context!" would have been too terse, I gather :P – oerkelens May 22 '15 at 8:44
  • Whenever someone is described as a child psychiatrist, I usually picture a ten-year-old with a couch made of Legos. – Erik Kowal May 22 '15 at 9:06
  • @ErikKowal: of course, what else would it be? Same as child prodigy, after all. And child labor is about giving birth, and child abuse about bad kids... It's actually quite amazing how good our mind (usually) is at picking the intended meaning out of the potential candidates, notwithstanding the (sometimes humorous) results when we (on purpose or not) pick the wrong option. – oerkelens May 22 '15 at 9:26
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I would argue that there's no "correct" here.

The statement is ambiguous. Presumably, if they're a gym, they mean it in the sense you suggest... though, you could certainly imagine a gym that taught some form of fighting - boxing, MMA, karate - and that all the people there were overweight.

It makes for a fun mental image, at the very least.

Not sure there's a way to know if it was intentional or not... though you could probably go in and ask... I bet they get that question a lot.

Fatfighters wouldn't remove the ambiguity, just be following the .com trend of giving companies names that don't have spaces much like URLs.

  • It does make a fun mental image :) Thanks for taking your time to comment on this. – nohwnd May 22 '15 at 8:45

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