Monday, July 19, 2010

English Closed Triple Compound Words

shit shat shot

What the hell does the title of this piece mean?

Let's break it down, in reverse order:

* Compound words -- I'm sure you know what a compound word is: Two or more words joined together to form a new word.

* Triple -- Now I'm just making stuff up. My idea here is that most closed English compounds are formed with a pair of words -- but there are very few instances, in English, of three joined words.

* Closed (or "solid") -- Just means that the compounded words are mashed right together (e.g., wallpaper) instead of hyphenated (e.g., single-minded) or separated by a space (e.g., dead end, which, if closed, would make the wonderful "deadend"!).

* English -- Duh. Or not so "duh"? Keep reading to learn about the relevant controversy surrounding this seemingly innocent term!

Okay--so you're with me so far? Good! I've been collecting a few closed English triple compound words that I'd like to share. Many of them can be grouped according to key "root" words. Some dictionaries will differ, but I found all of these listed somewhere. I'll also share a few good fakes and questionable entries. Let me know if you have others! (One ground rule--I am excluding scientific mumbo-jumbo, so please don't break out your chemistry books.)

"Man" Group
There are a handful of triples created by adding "man"/"men" to a pre-existing compound. I reckon you could do the same with "woman"/"women", "person", and, if you wanted to cross the line, "bot".

* backwoodsman
* crossbowman
* longshoreman
* newspaperman
* plainclothesman

"Super…man" Group
Supermen warrant their own category! (Surely there are other "super" triple plays?)

* supersalesman
* superseamen
* superstatesmen


* Eastsoutheast, etc.

Lots of triples are formed by placing a word in front of "soever":

* whatsoever
* whensoever
* wheresoever
* whichsoever
* whithersoever
* whomsoever
* whosoever

I nearly overlooked this entire family, quite forgetting that upon is "up" "on"! Actually, I suspect that this just a subset of a larger "…up…" family, but I couldn't come, er, up with anymore.

* hereupon
* whereupon

Do you have any more to offer? Note that there are some mini-groups here ("here…", "inso…", "…the…"), which may help to jog your memory…

* counterclockwise
* heretofore
* hereinafter
* insofar -- perhaps the shortest of all English closed triple compound words!
* insomuch
* nevertheless -- if dig back real deep and consider "never" as a contraction ("n(ot)ever"), this is close to quadruple territory!
* nonetheless
* notwithstanding
* whatshisname, whatshername, whatshisface (debatable, I'll grant you, but these seem to be in common usage at this point)

What's your opinion on these candidates? Anymore good fakes out there?

* highwayman (and superhighway) -- On the one hand, "highway" does seem to refer to the high way (rather than the main way), but the term is so old that it actually stems from OE heiweg via ME heyewey, both of which are compounds. In otherwords (teehee), "highway" may not be directly formed from mashing "high" with "way", but the compound was originally formed in English (albiet Old English), and the root words both "translated" individually as the word carried forward to contemporary English.

* nowadays -- Similar to my "highway" concern, "nowadays" stems from ME nouadaies which was a joing of nou ("now") and adaies ("during the day"). Adaies was, as best as I can tell, a contraction formed from a (short for "of"?) and daies for days. Nowadays, however, "nowadays" feels like a joining of "now", "a" (bastardized "of"), and "days".

* wherewithal and therewithal -- "Withal" is a word in its own right, but I think that it does stem from ME joining of with and al ("all").

* woebegone -- Not actually "woe" "be" "gone" :-) Instead, this stems from ME wo ("woe") joined with begon (means "beset"). Anyone want to argue that ME begon stems from an OE compound of be and go, which would make this a triple play if we count a ME/OE blend as fair game?

My favorite category of all!

* buttonhole -- "but" "ton" "hole"
* catalog -- "cat" "a" "log"?
* champ'ion'ship
* cot'ton'mouth (& cot'ton'tail & cot'ton'wood)
* counter'at'tack
* cub'by'hole
* disc'on'tent
* do'or'knob (& …man, …mat, & …way)
* fat'her'hood
* feat'her'bed (& …weight)
* her'ring'bone
* sports'man'ship -- My favorite fake! Plenty others in this vein (e.g., "gamesmanship", "horsemanship", "seamanship")… (My hat's tipped, bytheway [hahaha], to Paul's Glob for a number of these triple plays, including the wonderful "sportsmanship"!)

Compound compounds
My thanks to ohsuplauren for the idea of mashing compounds together. For example, moreover + overrule = moreoverrule. You can also get sillier: goldfish + fisherman = goldfisherman. Here are a few more:

* fatherhoodwinked
* loinclothespin
* dumbbellhopscotchmankindhearted


  1. This kind of triple compound probably comes from the language's Germanic roots. I'm a bit more familiar with Romance languages but from my understanding new words in German can be created by simply stringing old ones together, hence those long-ass German words. I'll query a colleaugue here to see how far this can be taken. I know three-word compounds exist but after that?

    In French this is more difficult and compound words are hyphenated and not really considered one word but two.

    My favorites:

    "Chauve-souris" which means "bat" (like Batman) but literally means "bald mouse"!

    "Cerf-volant" is kite but means "flying deer".

    Also, "pommes de terre", not compound at all but it means "potato", literally "apple of the earth."

    Still makes me chuckle!

    Good post!

  2. Good one!

    I do really dig the bald mouse, too. It's a pretty weird way to describe a bat. I mean, why not a "winged mouse"?

    I think that you're right about the German inheritence on this aspect of English.

    Greek is also apparently keen on compounding and has some really doosys of some mashups.

  3. Your 'dumbbellhopscotchmankindhearted' word reminds me of a chain of overlapping names I came up with...
    Minnie Pearl Buck Henry Aaron Neville Chamberlain

  4. Hi Fabio. That's a pretty good chain. I think once you hit Chamberlain, however, it's a bit difficult to go on! Thanks so much for your comment....

  5. Nice one, faio61! I like how you referred to that: "overlapping names." That would actually be a good car game, taking turns saying the next name in an overlapping series. Whoever gets stuck has to chug his beer or whatever. (Kidding of course.) Playing "Chamberlain" would be a good way to stick it to the next player!

  6. Would Chamberlain High School (Tampa) count?

  7. I mentioned this article in my blog at, thanks for pointing out the fake compound words. I'll have to look more into the different types of compounds (endocentric, exocentric, copulative, appositional)and maybe use those rules to help me remove fakes!

  8. Hey willisj, thanks for mentioning us and thanks too for letting us know about it. I'm a part-time translator myself, so your blog is of interest to me. I'll try to drop by from time to time and see what you are up to. I often use online translators as a reference, for a "second opinion" etc. Very usefel then, to have people working in both CS and linguistics to improve them! I'm not sure they'll ever replace a human translator, at least for poetry and songs, but it may just a well prove the case for more straightforward texts! Sadly, I know far less about linguistics than I should. My resolution for 2012 is to get a wider understanding of the film. I just read "Mouse or Rat?" by Umberto Eco. Very good book, a good blend of theoretical and practical examples.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  9. Ooh, ooh! Found a new one! I noticed "howevermuch" in George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones".

    It's not, however, listed in the online version of the OED.

  10. @ willisj -- Thanks for the comment! Sorry I didn't notice until now ... nearly a year after you left it!

    I hope your project is going well?

  11. That is amazing how you have contrived to totally unfold the theme which you have chosen for this peculiar blog entry. By the way did you use some other blog articles as a source of ideas to complete the whole situation which you have provided in this article?

  12. Replies
    1. Haha, when I saw this in my email I thought it was some kind of weird that Gid's responded and I see it in context I realize I was wrong! Good one!

  13. Nice one, DeKay5s! I feel like there should be a host of tech related triplecompoundwords migrating into existence. Plenty of tech doubles are widestream (heh) now, fatfingered, spellcheck, inbox ... gotta be some more triples out there!

  14. Here's another fake. My first QUADRUPLE!!! in'form'at'ion

  15. Replies
    1. Nice ones! Sorry I didn't notice these sooner - you crushed my record for the shortest triple compound!

  16. Im sorry but i dont understand why sportsmanship is considered a fake?

    1. I think sports and man are ok, but the ship part isn't the word for a big boat but a suffix meaning "character" or "skill". So sportsman would be a double compound but adding ships isn't a triple compound....

  17. How about "Together"? To'Get'Her

    1. Would have to go in the fake category but I like it -- very poetic. :)

  18. OK: How about the gnat-like insect in Florida "no-see-ums" ? Does it count if it's hyphenated?

    Also, this isn't mine, but "plainclothesman" is a good one. I saw it after Googling "English Closed Triple Compound Words hoping to find an image for this post!

    1. Just saw you'd already listed plainclothesman. I just thought of another category: words with the most suffixed and prefixes, like "antidisestablishmentarianism". anti- ; dis- ; -ment ; -ian ; -ism

    2. Hyphens like that are often dropped if the word gets frequent enough usage (e.g., we no longer write "good-bye", "week-end"), so I say yes, let's count no-see-ums, which, by the way, is one of the shorter triple compounds discovered to date

    3. Daurade, I don't think that anyone will beat "antidisestablishmentarianism" for sheer volume of suffixes and prefixes unless we start making shit, meaning, of course, the political rejection of the nostalgically resprung activist movements.

      But maybe postneoliberalism is now a real thing along with postcolonialism?

    4. Wiki: " By following the rules of English grammar it is possible to construct "Antidisestablishmentarianistically" ...." So you lose the -ism but replace it with -ical and add -ly. The longest word in English is Pneumono­ultra­microscopic­silico­volcano­coniosis : "an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust."

  19. I just re-read this article, and "fatherhoodwinked" cracked me up. Sorry to laugh at my own joke, but that seems like a word that could catch on

  20. I think I found a new one, even though it uses "sensational spelling" -- (yes, that's what it's called when you write "kwik" or "thru") : whodunnit

  21. I've seen assbackwards but it's usually ass-backwards. So, can we accept the latter?

    It would have to be a fake though, because -ward here is a suffix, not a ward. Or would it? It does come from an Old English word: -weard. In modern usage it can refer to a spatial direction, and might be linked to the word "ward" which can be used to refer to a subdivision of space of some sort: a voting district, a hospital area, etc.

    Actually as a suffix it comes from weard meaning "toward" but as a word it also comes from "weard" in this case meaning many things relating to keeping, watching, or waiting for as in ambush. So from guardian it came to mean that being guarded or protected, such as a ward of the state, but it also survived in the guard sense as "warden" and the protection sense as in "to ward off".

    I think it counts....the suffix is true to the wider sense of the word....whaddaya think? Dos whaddaya count? How about shouldna (should not have)? Would they count as slang or dialect candidates? Would there be triple compounds in say, Ebonics (or it's lesser-known "whit" vernacular language, Ivorics? ;)

    I see these are called "informal contractions" or "reduced forms". They're all pretty common though. So are they three words, or one, or merely garbled oral English, a string of phonemes to replace words?

  22. OK, last one. If we accept whodunnit, we'd have to accept whatchamacallit, a quintuple compound: what you may call it!

  23. A really good "fake" triple compound is 'standoffish.' Stand of fish would be one of the best compounds ever, but alas...

    1. Haha, that phrase kept running thru my mind as I drove to work, like an OCD tic! :) It actually sounds like a technical term fishermen might use: "Hey there, Bubba, head down yonder to that thar holler and yewl find yoself a mighty stand o' fish, I tellya...."

    2. Your “...soever” category is not a recognized category Although, it does fall under “tmesis,” where compound words, other polysyllabic words, or an infinitive phrase, such as whatever, are cut apart and another word (the infix, which is often an intensifier) is inserted between, making whatsoever. However, not all of these become closed compounds.

      Snoop Dogg does a version of this, but with one syllable words and “iz” for the infix. That's how house becomes hizouse.

      Other examples of tmesis: a whole nother, abso-freakin-lutely, the whole famdamnily, bassackward, kangabloodyroo (in Australia, tmesis is called “tumbarumba”), and Hot Diggity Dog!


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