Cutthroat compounds in English morphology: kickass, scarecrow, killjoy, and more.

The Kick-Butt World of Cutthroat Compounds

The Kick-Butt World of Cutthroat Compounds

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
May 22 2015 11:23 AM

The Kick-Butt World of Cutthroat Compounds

A scarecrow, otherwise known as an agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun compound, guards a London garden in 2003.

Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images

The following post was excerpted from Sentence First: An Irishman's blog about the English language.

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.


This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: The rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the “head.” In other words it’s the center or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is “right-headed.”

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows.

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: Chaise longue is a type of chaise; lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric—the center is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: A bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head—both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colorful history and constitute a very interesting category.


Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast—lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight—breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

Despite the familiarity of these examples, only a few dozen are current in modern English. It’s because they conflict with the right-headedness of English, Brianne writes in her master’s thesis (“From Turncoats to Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounding in English”) that cutthroats’ productivity will never surpass that of “backstabber” compounds, which use the far more usual N-V-er pattern. We’re book readers, not readbooks; word lovers, not lovewords.

Cutthroats largely constitute “a treasury of nonce words,” having peaked centuries ago. Survivors tend to be peripheral, found in slang, regional dialects, and children’s short-lived innovations. But Brianne is on a mission to catalog them and has recorded several hundred, including such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person), spoil-paper (bad writer), whiparse (abusive teacher), eat-bee (bird), lacklooks (unattractive person), stretchgut (glutton), clutchfist (miser), and catch-fart (servant who walks behind their master).

One I’ve always liked is smell-feast, meaning someone who sniffs out a feast and comes uninvited to share in it. The OED’s first citation for this word, from 1519, refers to “smellefyestes, lycke dysshes, and franchars [who] come vncalled.” Franchars derives from franch, an obsolete word meaning “feed greedily,” while the more transparent “lycke dysshes” counts as another cutthroat. Here is Brianne on their general status:

Cutthroats are freely productive in Romance languages, which have a V.O. (verb-object) structure and are left-headed. English, which is V.O. and right-headed, has slight native productivity (Clark et al, 1986) that has been amplified and augmented by French borrowings (e.g., coupe-gorge[cutthroat] and wardecorps [bodyguard]). English has been slowly producing new cutthroats since the 1200s up through 2015, mainly in the form of nonce personal insults. Most cutthroats are obsolete slang, but about 40, including ​pickpocket​, pinchpennyrotgut​ and​ spitfire, are commonly known in Modern English.

Hunting them down and determining their cutthroat status can be tricky, since there’s no formula to determine how a compound’s parts relate to each other. This is the subject of a presentation Brianne will give at the SHEL/DSNA conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, in June (“Does a Slingshot Sling Shots? Difficulties in Identifying English Cutthroat Compounds”), from whose abstract the quotation above is taken. For more on this see Laurie Bauer, “English Exocentric Compounds” (PDF).

Finding them is aggravated by the fact that they tend not to appear in standard dictionaries or well-documented areas. But they do clump semantically: mainly as insults, occupational names, and provincial nature-words. Brianne divides them into six categories: people (insults, occupations, insulted occupations—sometimes as surnames); games; tools; food and drink; plants and animals (including twitchbell, which James Joyce incorporated into Finnegans Wake); and adjectives such as lacklustrebreakneck, and breakteeth (= “difficult to pronounce”).

So far she has identified 846 cutthroats, and maybe more by the time you read this. Finding one can lead to another, thus kill-priest (port wine) → strangle-priest → strangle-goose​ →​ saddle-goose →​ saddle-nag. Some verbs recur: break, turn, lack, and pick all appear in more than a dozen, choke in at least five: chokepriest (thick Italian soup), choke-sparrow (bearded wheat), choke-dog (hard cheese), choke-children (bony fish), and choke-jade (a place in England).

The pattern, though rare nowadays, is not completely unproductive in English. Children go through a phase of compound acquisition in which they invent cutthroats spontaneously before dropping the habit again. By email Brianne shared a few modern ones she has spotted in comics and other pop cultural domains, such as Princess TinglepantsProfessor Stealwater, and pesterchum (a messaging app). Among her vintage favorites, complete with her glosses, are:

Kick-shins: a children’s game Swingebreech: a haughty swaggerer (who swings their hips while walking); related: shit-breech, quakebreech, shuffle-breeches Fuckbottere: occupational last name where fuck means ‘strike’ and bottereis butter – an agrarian worker. (I believe one of the earliest instances of fuck.)

The insulting kinds, Brianne says, “cut right to what makes people unlikeable.” She loves their brutal honesty and finds that they tend to stand out and endure despite their low productivity. She feels cutthroats of all kinds have been unjustly overlooked, only ever “briefly mentioned in English compounding chapters, with the same examples over and over. Why aren’t there more? Why do they exist at all?” These questions she addressed in some detail in her thesis.

I salute her quest to shine a light on what she calls a shadowy footnote of English morphology, and I highly recommend this short talk she gave in 2013, which offers more examples of cutthroats both contemporary and archaic, celebrates their curious nature, and briefly documents their shifting popularity over the centuries.

Finally, if you want yet more exocentric pleasure, watch Chris Magyar’s half-hour comic talk where he riffs on why exocentric compounds appeal to him and why twinkletoes most of all.