I am trying to write a review of a text.

I am trying to understand the context of two phrases: "spider-man" and "human spider".

Do they mean different things?

Although these two words were used interchangeably in the movie "Spiderman" (2002), I have a feeling that, grammatically, "spider-man" means "a human with spider properties". On the other hand, "human spider" means "a spider with human properties".

Am I right or wrong?

  • In both cases it is a human being with spider properties. Spider in spider-man is an attributive adjective.
    – user 66974
    Nov 5, 2019 at 21:05
  • Is a con man a con that's like a man? Is a salesman a sale that's like a man?
    – Juhasz
    Nov 5, 2019 at 21:05
  • 4
    Spider-man could just be the guy who sells you your spiders .... Just like an oil-man sells oil ...
    – David M
    Nov 5, 2019 at 22:48
  • 3
    Compare: ice cream man, human ice cream. Nov 22, 2019 at 23:48
  • 1
    Your definitions make unwarranted assumptions about the semantic role of the first element of a compound. Hamawand, in Word Formation in Cognitive Grammar, lists 12 semantic roles of the first element of a compound adjective, and I'm fairly sure I've added a thirteenth. I've checked that the categories also apply, in the main, to compound nouns. One can't argue convincingly for the meaning of a compound using merely an arbitrary possible interpretation. // 'The Spider Woman' was a popularisation of a related string by Conan Doyle, and no May 21, 2020 at 11:23

4 Answers 4


‘Human anything’ tends to be human first (eg human dynamo, human torch).

Other combinations often go the other way (eg motor vehicle is a vehicle, tree kangaroo is a kangaroo, beach house is a house).

  • 2
    Of course there's Human papillomavirus as a counter example.
    – Jim
    Nov 23, 2019 at 0:19
  • 1
    @Jim Well, yes. :)
    – Lawrence
    Nov 23, 2019 at 3:25
  • 1
    And human flea. But human is a proper adjective as well as a noun.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 10, 2022 at 21:17

I suppose, although I understand this is going rather awry from your distinct question on grammatical-context, the kenning phrase of: "human-like spider", "an arachnidian human", a "spiderly man" or a "spider-like human" (humanoid), would befit a much more harmonious, poetically sounding rendition, if anyone ever wished to creatively write on such a basis, of a particular figure or man who seemed to possess uncanny qualities of a spider or visa-versa, and with a more easing certainty that the reader would not think of the Marvel superhero, but rather the distinct depiction of such a character.

P.S. once again, please pardon me for diverting away from your particular question but I thought I would write this down if anyone ever came on the sight, who desired to write a story and desired another opinion on the concept of wondering on the "spider-man" distinction of whether it connotates distinctly to a spider-like quality.



The term human spider includes women. It is at least a tenable argument that the term spider-man does not.

Of course, traditionalists like myself would consider the word man can include women, e.g.

Man is the measure of all things

But the comic book character to which Spiderman refers, has a female counterpart, Spiderwoman. Admittedly this lacks the hyphenation of the question, but hyphenation seems to be a matter of style, so the average reader would infer a sexual difference.


"Spiderman" is, of course, a proper noun, the name of the character. "Spider-man" would (like "human spider") be merely a description of the hero. Presumably, in the movie, you cannot tell if any uses would contain a hyphen (unless the subtitles clarify things), so it should be assumed that any use of "Spiderman" is referring to the character's name.

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