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I see a ton of examples of compound nouns which are two words combined into one, scattered across the web when you search "compound noun list", such as "blackboard", "aircraft", or "underworld". But there are fewer examples of 2-word compound nouns which remain separated (not even joined by a hyphen), such as town square, or "bus stop". But the question is, can you have long "chains" of compound nouns than just 2, without hyphens (for example, merry-go-round isn't one)? Are there any 3 or 4 (or more!) word sequences which can be made into compound nouns in English? If not, why not? I am looking for regular nouns, not proper names if that helps. Bonus, if there are some, where is a list of a bunch of them?

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  • Some words involving a compound word and the ending man/person work. For example highwayman (a type of robber that travelled by horse), longshoreman (one employed to load/unload ships), etc. If you look for words ending in man (thefreedictionary.com/words-that-end-in-man), you can find a few.
    – turkey
    Dec 14, 2021 at 2:06
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    Are there really only a few 2 word compound nouns? Birthday cake. Replace cake with card, party, wish, drink, dinner, kiss… Replace birthday with anniversary, retirement, holiday. Soccer ball. Replace ball with game, field, team, stadium, referee…Replace soccer with any other sport (don’t use ball if it is in the name, but other nouns work e.g. baseball bat)…hamburger bun, ice cream cone (ooo that’s three)…
    – Damila
    Dec 14, 2021 at 3:37
  • Thanks @Damila, those are great examples and ways to think of them! Hadn't considered that.
    – Lance
    Dec 14, 2021 at 3:53
  • Sure. As a game I thought of many in my current surroundings. And here is a bonus 4-word: ice cream cone holder.
    – Damila
    Dec 14, 2021 at 4:00
  • The simple answer is no. "Town square" and "bus stop" are not compound words but syntactic constructions consisting of noun+noun (i.e. modifier + head). Compounds, by contrast, are always single words consisting of two (or occasionally more) smaller bases. I suggest you obtain a copy of a good book on morphology.
    – BillJ
    Dec 14, 2021 at 7:35

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It's easy to find such expressions with the right tool. In COCA, you can search for NOUN NOUN NOUN NOUN to find strings of four nouns. The most popular is "radio talk show host", with more than 500 hits in the corpus. Looking at strings of 5 nouns, I found "health care cost growth benchmark" and even the six noun string "motor vehicle license revenue anticipation certificates", both of which come from legalese. While many examples come from technical contexts like that, there are others that don't, such as "video game designer job description".

(A lot of the other hits have proper nouns or are garbage, but there are many other good examples.)

There's not really a limit to how many nouns can be strung together like this, except that after a while it looks ridiculous and becomes hard to understand.

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  • Great! But it looks like it's paywalled? No wait the search link works, it's just that if I search it doesn't work, I'll have to learn some more about COCA then. Thanks!
    – Lance
    Dec 14, 2021 at 2:11
  • @LancePollard You have to make an account. Even with how much I use it, I haven't needed to pay (but they constantly bug me about being a free user).
    – Laurel
    Dec 14, 2021 at 2:13

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