At some point in the past I encountered the following verbal analogy:


In my view, the question is asking what one would term the "swain" morpheme in "boatswain".

I have ruled out suffix itself as "swain" is neither an inflectional nor (appears to be) a derivational ending.

Some answers I have found and excluded are:

  • suprafix/superfix : this pertains to the patterns of tone or stress on various parts of a word that may determine its meaning, e.g. to distinguish between the verb form of conduct from the noun form
  • stem : would only work if you considered "boat" as a prefix

My best guess so far would be "root", in that the word "boatswain" consists of two roots -- "boat" and "swain" -- in a similar way to the word "wheelchair".

What do the expert linguists among you think?

  • Sailors turned "boat" and "swain" into "boatswain" (and then "bosun"), just as they have been responsible for the creation of many other words in English.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 18:05
  • 2
    That is basically the definition of a compound: it consists of two (or more) roots. So yes, root works. Or element, or part. (Would this question not be a better fit for Linguistics? The word happens to be English, but the process of compounding is a cross-linguistic one.) Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 18:06
  • Without looking anything up, I would say that 'boat' is a prefix to 'swain', that being a term for someone in charge of something. As for instance a 'coxswain'.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 18:15
  • I wonder if swain by itself is considered archaic enough or obsolete that -swain in boatswain, coxswain, etc could be considered a cranberry morpheme?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 18:33
  • @HotLicks One sometimes sees bosun written bo'sun for that reason. I cannot find on the internet an abbreviation for coxswain, however.I am sure that in Norfolk they say cox'sun The Cromer lifeboat has a new cox'sun. People certainly say coxsun.
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 18:34

2 Answers 2


I believe the correct term is a bound root. This refers to the part of a compound word that is not (or is no longer) an independent word.

According to SIL:

A bound root is a root which cannot occur as a separate word apart from any other morpheme.

  • Swain is listed in major dictionaries. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 21:09
  • Granted, though it is often marked as archaic, and is certainly not a part of common English parlance.
    – Sawbones
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 21:17
  • Collins, AHDEL, M-W and RHK Webster's do not flag it as such. Macmillan flags it as 'literary'. ODO is the only dictionary I've found using a bare 'archaic' label. And even archaic words are still words. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 21:25
  • @Sawbones - I can see your point that the independent word has only a tenuous connection with the morpheme. However, as others have pointed out, "swain" does not adhere to the strict definition of "bound root". I will try to ask better questions in future. +1 Thanks.
    – Marconius
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 0:20

A bit of canoodling around on the intertubes with the google leads me to believe that the answer is


The second syllable of "sweetness" modifies the first syllable, turning the adjective into a noun, but it's the first syllable of "boatswain" that modifies the second, turning "swain" (a young man) into a particular type of young man, namely one who works on a boat. Thus the correspondence is a semantic one between the roots "sweet" and "swain," which appear in different syllabic positions in their containing words. It might be tempting to make the correspondence a syllabic one based on the order of the syllables, and conclude that both second syllables are suffixes, but that's incorrect.

  • +1 I think this might be the official answer to the analogy. By analogy with words such as "wheelchair", I suspect that the stem might be the entire word "boatswain".
    – Marconius
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 0:14

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