In a Word: Cutthroat Language

What can bring swashbucklers, lickspittles, and daredevils together?


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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

We learn in elementary-school English class that compound words are formed by taking two or more individual words and squishing them together into a single entity. But what we don’t spend much time talking about in that class are the characteristics of the words that eventually combine to become that new compound word.

Compounds can be formed from nearly every part of speech

  • Nouns: football, jellyfish
  • Verbs: popcorn, earthquake
  • Adjectives: rawhide, redhead
  • Adverbs: everywhere, something
  • Prepositions: onboard, oversight

But one particular combination is relatively rare and interesting: A compound word formed from a transitive verb followed by a noun that is the object of that verb. Let’s cut through the grammatical jargon with a few examples:

  • A daredevil dares the devil.
  • A scarecrow scares crows.
  • A pickpocket picks pockets.

Historical linguist Brianne Hughes calls these type of words cutthroat compounds, cutthroat being a good example itself.

There aren’t a lot of cutthroat compounds in common use these days — only about 30, depending on your definition of common. Probably the most well-used one is breakfast, that meal that breaks the fast begun (presumably) after dinner the previous night.

However, when Hughes began combing the historical record, she found a larger collection of them than expected: 1,350 of them, and growing. Many of these are nonce words created off the cuff, and practically all of them are derogatory slang. Some you’ve heard before — like swashbuckler, sawbones, and skinflint — but many of the most colorful ones have fallen out of use, if they had much use at all in previous centuries. Here’s a smattering of fun ones:

  • A catch-fart is a footboy or servant (who follows too closely behind his master).
  • A hugmoppet is an over-affectionate old woman.
  • A lackbeard is a young man.
  • A lickspittle is a toady or yes-man, one who licks up the spittle of another (hopefully metaphorically).

Cutthroat compounds can also be surnames. Consider William Makepeace Thackeray and Ada Lovelace — and take a close look at William Shakespeare. They’re also not limited to English: The Spanish compound chupacabra is formed from chupar “to suck” and cabra “goat,” and the French amuse-bouche is a small appetizer meant to amuse one’s bouche “mouth.”

The malleability of English, though, can make it difficult to figure out whether a particular word is or isn’t a true cutthroat compound. Verb forms and noun forms often look the same. For example, when we’re on tiptoes, is it because we tip (v.) our toes forward, or because we stand on our toes’ tips (n.)? (It’s the latter.) Is a dreadnought a person or thing that dreads (v.) nothing or a person who thinks nothing of dread (n.)? (It’s the former.)

Cutthroat compounds isn’t a common, legitimate technical term for this type of word. Linguists have a haughtier vocabulary: “agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun compounds” they call them. But I believe that the simpler, clearer term cutthroat compounds will join other pop-linguistic terms like mondegreen and eggcorn to become a common lay term among logophiles.

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