I am looking for a compound noun that has a meaning that is completely (or very) different from the words it is derived from. This because I want to give an example of how powerful the human brain is in understanding meaning from context. For example, we know that washing machine is a machine that washes. We know that a haircut is a specific way in which your hair is cut. These words are relatively easy to understand, because the meaning of the individual words is largely retained in the meaning of the compound.

I would like to find a word "X" in which the two seperate words are relatively well-known and have individual meanings, but when combined the meaning is completely different.

  • Well, there's the plumbing term "donkey dick", but it admittedly is named for it's vague resemblance to the appendage of said animal. – Hot Licks Nov 19 '15 at 9:10
  • Are you only looking for instances where the compound word is derived from the two inferred constituents? Presumably, if you are demonstrating the ability for the reader/listener to automatically disambiguate based on context, good examples could be words comprising parts whose meanings were potentially ambiguous for many reasons - e.g. spelling, pronunciation - despite having distinct etymologies. An example could be "sorbet". When spoken, this could be identical or nearly identical to "sore bay", and its correct interpretation would still illustrate your point. – WAF Nov 19 '15 at 12:08
  • @WAF That is interesting to consider as well but a compound word that is derived from its two inferred constituents provides the possibility to demonstrate both the neural patterns of the individual constituents as well as the compound itself (so three in total). Because part of these patterns presumably overlap, this makes for an interesting example. Therefore, such a compound is a good place to start my demonstration. I might consider disambiguating in a later stage. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 13:13
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    "pineapple" is neither a pine nor an apple – Jacob Krall Nov 19 '15 at 15:27
  • @JacobKrall "pineapple" is a good one indeed. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 15:42

10 Answers 10


Here's a few which I think fit:

The list at http://www.teflgames.com/compound_nouns.html was helpful to come up with ideas.

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    Honeymoon isn't a great example: honey is sweet and a moon is one month; honeymoon, according to Merriam-Webster, indicates that immediately after a marriage, the first month is the sweetest time to be together. – Spratty Nov 19 '15 at 13:42
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    @Spratty As I explained in my question, the actual origin of the compound is irrelevant: what matters is the normal meaning that we assign to the constituents. Both "Honey" and "Moon" have a meaning that we don't immediately associate with the meaning of "Honeymoon". Therefore, "Honeymoon" is actually a perfect example of a compound noun that fits my purpose. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 14:55
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    Sorry, Jean-Paul, but most people I know do associate the word with the original meaning of the compound. It may be a regional thing (south-east UK) but that is exactly the meaning it conveys. Unless, of course, you mean an absolutely literal reading where the only possible meaning could be a moon made entirely of honey, which would leave a huge number of words - compound or otherwise - open to question. – Spratty Nov 19 '15 at 15:13
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    @Spratty it would be impossible for most people you know to associate the word with its original meaning, since its original meaning is disputed. Even if the theory you hold to is correct and it has nothing to do with the practice of giving mead to newlyweds to drink in the first month of marriage (the other primary theory) or even if it in fact derives from both together, the fact that there is more than one contender for "original meaning" suffices to show that it is to some extent sundered from that origin. – Jon Hanna Nov 19 '15 at 15:33
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    @Jean-Paul Right - I think I get it now; I must have misunderstood initially. I think I might be a bit too quick to make associations. – Spratty Nov 19 '15 at 16:41
  • A peanut is neither a pea nor a nut.
  • A jelly bean is neither jelly nor a bean.
  • A chickpea is neither a chick nor a pea.
  • A butterfly is neither butter nor a fly.
  • A shuttlecock is neither a shuttle nor a cock.
  • A hi-hat is neither a greeting nor a hat.

Talk amongst yourselves.

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    Getting closer, but a peanut still closely resembles the size of a pea and the taste and texture of a nut. I would like the compound to have meaning that is completely independent from its components. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 8:45
  • torchère: Neither a mountain peak nor anyone's portion of the loot. – Ricky Nov 19 '15 at 9:01
  • Butterfly comes very, very close! Fly still retains some meaning in Butterfly – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 9:26
  • "Shuttlecock" is presumably named, in part, for it's vague resemblance to a bird. – Hot Licks Nov 19 '15 at 9:29
  • @HotLicks In addition, shuttle as in spaceshuttle also bears close resemblance to the shape of a shuttlecock. Also see Google images. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 9:31


  • benchmark
  • breakfast
  • cockpit (on a plane)
  • ballpark (estimate)
  • spreadsheet
  • moonshine
  • herringbone (pattern)
  • hotdog
  • quicksilver
  • Very good ones too! I especially like cockpit and spreadsheet. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 9:58
  • Glad I could help, Jean-Paul. – A.P. Nov 19 '15 at 10:08
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    Breakfast is exactly what the two parts of the compound noun state: a break in one's fast; fast being a period of not eating, particularly the old practice of not eating between supper and Holy Communion the following morning. By extension, the act of breaking the fast of the night with the first meal of the day. Reference: – Spratty Nov 19 '15 at 13:48
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    Ballpark doesn't really work either: it's a park in which you play games with a ball. A ballpark estimate comes from the phrase "being in the right ballpark", which came from "not even in the right ballpark", where "ballpark" is a large area; hence not in the right ballpark means a very long way away from the target. (Some others are good though, so +1) – AndyT Nov 19 '15 at 14:28
  • @Spratty You're correct about the etymology, of course. But I think the original meaning no longer springs to mind when we say the word, so it should fit the OP's purpose. After all, when an ad says "bed and breakfast", you don't prepare yourself for an evening fast. But this is a bit subjective and I can see your point. – A.P. Nov 19 '15 at 17:49

Garden-egg is neither an egg nor found in a garden.

Guinea-pig is neither a pig nor found in Guinea


You gave an example in your post: the word "understanding" has nothing to do with standing or with under.

  • Aah! That's a witty one! Nice addition :) – Jean-Paul Nov 21 '15 at 21:49

This is an old thread but I'd like to add a thought: It seems to me that compounds made up of an adjective and a noun are the only ones that might actually create a misunderstanding: greenhouse vs green house hotdog vs hot dog

If you mistakenly write, "My husband and I went on our honey moon," people would still know what you're talking about. However, if you wrote, "As a gardener, I often work in green houses," that would create confusion.


A couple of examples from the animal world:

  • I must confess: these are definitely the most creative ones so far. – Jean-Paul Nov 19 '15 at 19:06

This is fun. Here are some I can think of:

  • hangover
  • slapstick
  • scapegoat

(I'm going to keep thinking about this one)


Just walked by one and remembered this question:

Also, the second meaning here, which is the only one I've ever heard used:

  • Nice additions :) – Jean-Paul Apr 7 '16 at 19:50

A snapdragon is neither a snap nor a dragon

A cocktail is neither a cock nor a tail

A carpet is neither a car nor a pet (not really a compound noun, so may not qualify)

bootleg is neither a boot nor a leg (not a noun, but an adjective as in bootleg whisky)

Have to stop or I will become obsessed with this.

  • Are you sure "cocktail" is a compound noun? The etymology is disputed, but perhaps the most likely explanation is the French word for "eggcup" ("coquetier".) – A.P. Nov 20 '15 at 9:07
  • @A.P. Cocktail is a perfect candidate because, as I explain in my question, the origin of the word doesn't matter. It's about the first association that people have with the individual words. – Jean-Paul Nov 20 '15 at 9:28
  • @ab2 You can also try out my new question. – Jean-Paul Nov 20 '15 at 9:28
  • @Jean-Paul Yes, I understand the origin part. But the question asks about compound nouns, and "cocktail" is evidently not a compound. Same with "carpet". – A.P. Nov 20 '15 at 9:31
  • @A.P. I see. Yes, that calls their usefulness into question. I misunderstood :) – Jean-Paul Nov 20 '15 at 9:34

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