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I'm often confused by the meaning of two nouns in a row.

Specifically, I came across this word in a TV show:

Demon Hunter

Without looking at the context of the show, I feel like this word can mean either "A hunter who hunts demon" OR "A demon who is also a hunter". Which one is the right one?

Similarly, words like:

Child abuser

Most people would understand it as "a person who abuses a child", but why can't it mean "an abuser who happens to be just a child"?

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    I agree that when I read 'demon hunter' it could mean a hunter of demons or a demon who's a hunter. But I'd stress those two meaning differently when speaking: DEmon hunter = hunter of demons, DEmon HUNTer = a hunter who's a demon. – David Garner Apr 12 '16 at 17:24
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    @DavidGarner: and they say English isn't a tonal language. :) – Andy Apr 12 '16 at 19:51
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    Hellboy is both kinds of demon hunter – user662852 Apr 12 '16 at 20:58
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    @Andy, I was thinking the same thing as I stood in my greenhouse looking at the green house over the wall! – David Garner Apr 12 '16 at 21:30
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    Ghost pirate or pirate ghost!? – mkingsbu Apr 13 '16 at 0:41
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The short answer is that there's no reason they can't mean "a demon who hunts" or "a child who abuses".

The long answer is that we won't instinctively parse them that way: in general English usage a construct like this is understood to be [attributive noun] [noun] where the attributive is modifying the one that follows.

In the case of your first example, we know we have a hunter. What kind of hunter? Demon. A hunter who hunts demons. In the second, we know we have an abuser. What kind of abuser? Child. An abuser who abuses children.

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    So you are saying on the top of all of the grammatical rules, you need some common sense too? – Liam Grelon Apr 12 '16 at 15:34
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    A "cat burglar" doesn't steal cats, either. – Peter Shor Apr 12 '16 at 15:47
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    "Demon Hunter" = "someone who hunts demons". "Female Hunter" = "A female who hunts". No rules. – Max Williams Apr 12 '16 at 16:02
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    @MaxWilliams Or someone who hunts females. :) – John Clifford Apr 12 '16 at 16:05
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    @MaxWilliams "female" in "female hunter" is an adjective rather than a noun. I'd posit that the use of a word as an adjective is preferred to the attributive noun use. Since "child" and "demon" are nouns only, the use is clearly attributive as John states. – pydsigner Apr 12 '16 at 17:05
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It can mean both and there's nothing stopping you, but some nuance is involved. John Clifford already posted a great answer, but I thought I'd provide some additional points.

Demon hunter has context and history behind it. English speakers have a sort of contextual understanding from literature and history that helps to convey the meaning, "A hunter who hunts demons." You would reach similar results with terms like witch hunter.

The reason female hunter doesn't have the same result is because we don't have roots in literature and history where "a hunter who hunts females" has any sort of strong presence.

Usually when an English speaker is trying to describe something (the hunter) but that description happens to clash with a well established context, then to convey that to the reader in a better way, they might rewrite the sentence as something like

"The hunter of females"

Sometimes it can be a little awkward like "The hunter who was female" but how it's conveyed in the best way is entirely up to the speaker/writer. It depends on the situation and context.

With demon hunter, you could say "The demonic hunter." This also works with cat burglar. To me, if you wanted to describe a burglar who was actually a cat, you could say, "The feline burglar."

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I read "Demon Hunter" as meaning an "excellent / very good" hunter, with "Demon being used in a slang sense.

But ... a quick web search shows that "Demon Hunter is an American Christian metal band from Seattle, Washington, started in 2000"1). I note that the questioner capitalises both words and refers to a TV show, so I assume that the term is actually referring to that band.

  • "Demon Hunter is an American Christian metal band[...]" because of course it is. – MikeTheLiar Apr 12 '16 at 17:49
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    FWIW, I'm British and have never heard "demon" used as slang to mean "good", nor would I understand it in this way if I heard the phrase "demon hunter". But of course it might be different elsewhere. – GMA Apr 13 '16 at 0:46
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    @GeorgeMillo I'm British too and i've heard it used in the phrase "demon bowler" (referring to Cricket), "demon" meaning "fearsome" or "formidable", which sort of equates to "good" in that context, ie they are fearsome to opponents because they're so good. It looks like the phrase originated with an Australian cricketer called Fred Spofforth en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Spofforth – Max Williams Apr 13 '16 at 7:41

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