I have ambiguity with the meaning of some compound nouns, especially in the form noun+noun like: "The Pirate King", "The Lion King", "The Pirate Bay" and so on.


to put it in context:

Consider this famous movie title: "The Lion King", is it literally another structure of "The King of Lions", meaning are they interchangeable like << the owner of the restaurant = the restaurant owner >>?
Or: "Lion" is a noun but like an adjective describing the kind or type of the "King", meaning literally "the King (of the Jungle) that is a lion"?
If the latter, then doesn't "The Pirate Bay" mean "the Bay of Pirates"?

Also consider what Luffy said in "One Piece":

I'm Monkey D. Luffy, the man who will become the Pirate King!

  • Actually, The Pirate King more closely transposes to The King of the Pirates.
    – Robusto
    Sep 17, 2019 at 17:52

2 Answers 2


With strings of nouns in English it is virtually impossible to deduce the exact meaning purely from grammar, and it usually has to be inferred from context. In terms of pure grammar, both interpretations are possible.

For example most people reading "a pirate king" or "a fairy king" would assume it meant the king of the pirates, or the king of the fairies, but this is based on contextual knowledge that pirates and fairies sometimes have kings over them (at least they do in fiction - and of course the pirate king or the fairy king are normally pirates or fairies).

But for other nouns the reverse would be assumed. A "philosopher king" or a "warrior king" would be assumed to be a philosopher, or a warrior, who was also a king. They would not necessarily be king over other philosophers or warriors. This is again based on contextual expectations that philosophers or warriors don't usually have their own kings. This could be subverted - for example in a story where philosophers had formed their own nation it might be expected that the philosopher king was king over all philosophers.

If there is danger of confusion you can write "king of the pirates" or "the king who was a pirate", but if you are reading the phrase on its own you will have to look for contextual clues.

  • I basically agree except this is not about strings of nouns. Only two nouns, right? Anyway, +1 for simplicity and understandable language.
    – Lambie
    Sep 17, 2019 at 17:59
  • 1
    @Lambie 'String' is a blanket term for any number of words appearing in sequence in writing, print, code.... DJC correctly points out that a N + N string does not automatically qualify as a compound noun. It could alternatively be a close collocation, a loose collocation, or a nonce juxtaposing. Sep 17, 2019 at 18:06
  • @EdwinAshworth en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_string
    – Lambie
    Sep 17, 2019 at 18:13
  • @Lambie I'm going to steal that link. Sep 17, 2019 at 19:09
  • 1
    @Lambie: Farlex: linguistic string ... Noun 1. linguistic string - a linear sequence of words as spoken or written ... string of words, word string ... string - a linear sequence of symbols (characters or words or phrases) // also 'We used the CQP query syntax to extract all strings of two nouns that followed....' [Modelling Semantic Transparency_Bell & Schäfer] Sep 18, 2019 at 13:12

Actually, I think The Pirate King and The Lion King means a king who is a pirate and a king who is a lion. It can be very confusing when you look at the terms though because, and I don’t know if this is just me, but at first the words pirate and lion also seem to be describing the word king but that makes no sense at all when those two words are also nouns. I think you have to use of if you want to show a connection between the pirate (or the lion) with other pirates (or other lions), as in when he is the king of several pirates (or lions).

  • So what does "The English Queen" mean?
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 14, 2019 at 1:14
  • ‘The English Queen’ means a Queen who is English; it’s obviously not the same as ‘The Pirate King’ or ‘The Lion King’. Sep 14, 2019 at 1:56
  • Unless the king is in drag.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 14, 2019 at 2:04
  • Yeah! It would be totally different then! Sep 14, 2019 at 2:06
  • What makes no sense at all is to pretend that a noun cannot describe another noun! Food containers, dog houses, rubber baby buggy bumpers, automobile windshield wipers, river otters, lake bottoms, star light, flower petals, race car tracks, track monkeys, monkey brains, brain cells, cell walls, wall openings, opening ceremonies, and of course track monkey brain cell wall opening ceremonies. :)
    – tchrist
    Sep 14, 2019 at 2:07

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