Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bear cats aren't cats. Or bears.

This tweet appeared in my timeline today:
All of this is useful and important information, and it's cool how things get to be named things that they aren't, but the linguistic point I wanted to make is in relation to the last one.

Each of these has two parts to its name, either an adjective plus a noun (slow+worm, horny+toad) or two nouns (killer+whale, bear+cat). (I've analysed 'killer' as a noun here, but I suppose it might be an adjective too - it doesn't much matter.) In each case, it's the second part that tells you the type of thing that it is (or isn't): a worm, a toad, a whale, a cat. That's because when you put two things together in language, you (nearly) always have one that's the 'head' and the other part modifies the head in some way. Here, it tells you what type of worm/toad/whale it is: a slow one, a horny one, a killer one. This is a general fact of English: the Right-Hand Head Rule.

This means that even when the two parts of a compound are nouns and either could theoretically be the head (a bear cat could be a type of cat or a type of bear), we interpret the right-hand element as the head. This is evident from the wording of the tweet, where we're told they're not a type of cat, and the fact that they're also not bears is added as a humorous parenthetical, just in case we were tempted to think that.

1 comment:

  1. (Although 'killer whales' [we prefer 'orcas'] are so whales, inasmuch as they're toothed whales of the genus Orcinus in same subfamily [Orcininae] as pilot whales. Dolphins and porpoises are close relatives, but are probably not called whales because they’re too small, not for some arcane taxonomic reason [whales not actually being scientific term anyway].)