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

SWEET NESS : SUFFIX :: BOAT SWAIN : ?


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?

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  • 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

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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.

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

SWEET NESS : SUFFIX :: BOAT SWAIN : STEM

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.

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  • +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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