I am referring to a set of words that wouldn't make sense if one word or the other was omitted. Like barbershop quartet, or Cyber Security. What do you exactly call this set of words?

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    I'm not sure I follow your examples (given your title and minimal explanation). 'barbershop' and 'quartet' and 'cyber' and 'security' all have perfectly good sense by themselves ('cyber' may not -grammatically- stand alone of course). 'Petrel' hardly ever appears outside of the phrase 'stormy petrel' (so that 'petrel' has no sense outside of that) Are you looking for the same idea but -both- words never appear in any other context?
    – Mitch
    Sep 18, 2011 at 13:10
  • @Mitch: ...or (one of my favourites) wrought iron. As Steven Pinker gleefully pointed out (in The Language Instinct, I think), hardly anyone knows or uses the word "wrought" in any other context, and few are aware that it's the archaic past participle of "to work". Sep 18, 2011 at 16:11
  • So what would you call a saying that if the words were separate have no meaning? Such as "over whelmed" No one is ever just "whelmed" and "hanky panky" no one just has "panky" what are these called?
    – user235853
    May 13, 2017 at 2:29

4 Answers 4


A collocation is also an option, though the meaning is broader than requested.

In corpus linguistics, collocation defines a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.

A pair or group of words that are juxtaposed in such a way

  • “strong coffee” and “heavy drinker” are typical English collocations

A phrase.

Noun: A small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, typically forming a component of a clause.

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    Most phrases would still make sense if a word is dropped.
    – rems
    Sep 18, 2011 at 11:38
  • @rem I was going to accept this answer, until you made that point. Great... what now? Sep 18, 2011 at 14:25

This phenomenon is called a

stormy petrel

which is both the name of the kind of bird and the name of the linguistic phenomenon because there is no such thing as a petrel of any other kind other than 'stormy'.

There are a number of examples here

It is also mentioned here at ELU.

The phenomenon could also be seen in single words which are formed from multiple morphemes, such as 'disgruntled', for which one of them never appears alone. Here is a Language log posting that is a quote of a passage intentionally filled with examples of these uncommonly exposed roots (mostly negatively prefixed words that have had the prefix removed).

From either of these lists, I don't see any examples where -neither- part stands alone.

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    I've never heard of the term 'stormy petrel' in linguistics, but if I may be pedantic, there are other species of petrel :- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrel
    – tinyd
    Sep 19, 2011 at 14:48
  • @tinyd: I'm just repeating what I heard. I think it is a recent neologism, like 'snowclone' 'eggcorn', 'pied piping' etc. Stormy Petrel only has a wikipedia page for the bird; it may be that my repeating a mention of it at ELU is really the beginning of making 'stormy petrel' an established label for the linguistic concept. The existence or lack of a wikipedia page is hardly a justification of existence or lack thereof of a concept.
    – Mitch
    Sep 19, 2011 at 14:55
  • @tinyd: That is, I'm not surprised that 'stormy petrel' turns out not to be a stormy petrel. I had never heard of even 'petrel' itself when I heard of the stormy kind.
    – Mitch
    Sep 19, 2011 at 14:57
  • I think the wikipedia entry merely points out that there are other species of petrel. I was being 'ornithologicaly pedantic' - I'd heard of the bird, but not the linguistic term, but apologies for the diversion!
    – tinyd
    Sep 20, 2011 at 9:34

The label for the concept that you are looking for is a

set phrase



a phrase, collocation, locution (a sequence of words) that has more meaning to it than the combination of meanings of its constituents. That is, the literal meaning of its parts does not give the meaning of the entire phrase. There is a discussion here of the difference between a plain old expression and an idiom , and on set phrase.

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