Cupboards and bro hugs: investigating compound words
The new words update for August is out, and some of you might have noticed that a few of the new words look suspiciously like there are two of them (I’m looking at you, air punch, bro hug, and spit take). That’s because, in dictionary terms, a word is something that conveys a single unit of meaning, whether that is physically one word, two words, or even a phrase.
Open and closed compounds
The thing with open compounds (compounds with spaces between the words) is that they don’t always stay open. It is quite obvious that cupboard is one word, and it looks like a typo if I write, “I put the shopping away in the cup board” (so much so that my word processor attempted to correct it). Yet once upon a time in cupboard’s history, it was written with a space. Now, we have left the vision of cupboard as two words so far behind us that we don’t even pronounce the p.
Even more entrenched are words like today, tomorrow, and tonight: all of these once enjoyed a space between their elements, but very rarely today (or to day, if you’d rather) would anyone think about the two words tucked inside each of them. Altogether and already have been without their space for so long that they have even dropped an l in their spelling.
At some point, many open compounds shed their space and become closed compounds like nice, well-behaved words, but this does not happen overnight. There can be centuries of flux, during which some people resolutely continue to use a space, some people tentatively insert a hyphen, and some people happily slam the two words together. All right —or do you prefer alright?— has been found with no space and a single l as early as the 1600s, and it seems we still haven’t reached a consensus on its spelling. It appears that we have, however, established that both all right and alright share one meaning.
Humblebrag or humble brag?
With terms that are still changing, it is not easy to say whether it is definitively one word or two. The same person might write humblebrag on one occasion and humble brag on another, but in both cases the exact same meaning is intended and understood. The only difference is a matter of spelling. Humble brag is no less a word than humblebrag in the same way that color is no less a word than colour. If we acknowledge that humble brag can be a word—in that it conveys the same single unit of meaning as humblebrag—then there is no reason to deny the word status of air punch, bro hug, or spit take simply because they each have a space in them.
When is a house not a house?
When deciding on including compounds in a dictionary, one important factor is to think about whether 1+1 really just equals 2. For example, if we add pink to house, we get a house that is (tastefully, we hope) pink, so this is a simple noun with an adjective modifier, not a compound word. There is no need to define pink house. If, on the other hand, we add green to house, we do not always get a house that is green. We can also get “a glass building in which plants that need protection from cold weather are grown”. Compounds, whether open or closed, are rarely just the sum of their parts.
If it would not be obvious for someone to know what two words mean when put together, then this would be one factor when considering it for inclusion in the dictionary. Someone who has never heard of a spit take before can be easily forgiven for not realizing it is something one does out of surprise or humour. Similarly, it is not immediately obvious from either air or punch that an air punch is an act of celebration rather than, say, a move in shadow-boxing. Both are more than the sum of their parts. It is this reasoning that finds idioms and proverbs regularly making their way into our dictionaries.
Who puts the bro in bro hug?
Ah, but what about bro hug? A hug between bros, what could be simpler to understand? This seems very much a 1+1=2 kind of compound, but is it as straightforward as that?
Dictionaries are in the business of providing information about words, whether that information is about meaning (someone could conceivably wonder whether a hug is only a bro hug if it’s between brothers), or if it’s about spelling (is it bro hug, bro-hug, or brohug?), or who uses this word and when. When a term is being used by a lot of people, a lot of people might start wanting to know more about it, and not everything they want to know will be about meaning. By adding bro hug to the dictionary, it is true that we can tell you which sense of bro is meant when people say bro hug; sometimes even the most obvious looking compounds can be ambiguous if you have genuinely never heard the term before. But we can also show that it is more commonly used in the US, can give the dialect-neutral alternative of man hug, and—by labelling the word as informal—can alert any unsure English users to avoid it in essays and interviews.
And when, as is perhaps inevitable (with instances of bro-hug, hyphen and all, sprouting up already) the space begins to vanish, you can turn to the dictionary for guidance on what is the most common and accepted spelling.