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English Language :: New Words For Old in English :: Compound Words

Updated on September 16, 2012

English Words :: New Compound Words

Once we had words we could make more. Words beget words. They multiply. They have done so throughout their existence. We can assume that they have done so and will always do so.

The simplest way to create new words is to join two together. The result is a new word with a life and character of its own. So much so that the original words may fade into the background. There are thousands of these compound words:

  • Rainbow, sunrise, whirlpool, forehead, eyebrows, tiptoe, hedgehog, headstrong, seaside, postman, passport and of course the not to be forgotten football

and there are thousands more still to be born. There are a multiplicity of others where either the spelling or pronunciation have been contracted over time such as:

  • Shepherd, holiday, breakfast, cupboard

but the original words can still be made out.

There are still others of greater age where the two words have merged together so completely that their oiginal separateness cannot easily be discerned:

  • alone = all one, which could be diced to make 'lone', which then spawned 'lonely', 'loneliness' and 'lonesome'.
  • answer = 'and swear' (Old English swarian = swear [a solemn statement, that is]) and that is why there is a 'w' in answer!
  • lord = loaf protector (Old English = hlaf weard , later hlaford )
  • lady = loaf-kneader (Old English = hlafdige )

Phrasal Verbs and Compound Words

English Words :: New Compound Words :: By Adding Prepositions

The Anglo-Saxons had a proclivity for creating new words by adding prepositions in front of verbs and nouns. This inclination led to hundreds of new, useful words being produced:

  • Inside, outside, outcast, outlaw, overcome, overflow, offspring, foresee, downfall, uphold, overthrow, forestall, undergo, undertake etc

Prepositions are the joints and sinews of a language giving a relationship between more prominent words. Their utilisation as prefixes allows the creation of new words from old, indefinitely.

Nowadays we are preposition mad. However, we tend to add them as suffixes to verbs. Perversely some have no effect at all, as for instance 'meet up with' where 'meet' could suffice. Often they change the meaning completely:

  • to be 'put up' is completely different from 'put up with' or 'put out' or 'put off': phrases that act as nouns or verbs.
  • drop-out, sit-in

This facilitation of prepositions has been going on for a thousand years and it is the Americans that have taken it to the extreme:

  • 'for free', 'for real' adds nothing to the meaning whereas 'uptight' does say something new and in pure Anglo-Saxon style.

One comment from a previous 'Language' hub was that Americans speak American but it is obvious that you Americans can not hide your Anglo-Saxon language roots and methods of constructing 'your' language.

Coinages of this ilk are highly idiomatic. They are liable to change, especially where the preposition remains separate. Which ones will last? Who knows? The universal language law of the survival of the fittest will decide.

Compound English Words :: Final Meaning

Few of us stop to think how the separate parts of compound words add up to a final meaning. Take 'understand'. Did this mean originally having men 'stand under' a leader as loyal followers?

'With' had a different and reverse meaning in the remote past. It originally expressed a feeling of opposition. This can still be seen in phrases such as:

  • 'fight with enemies', 'quarrel with neighbours', 'argue with wife'

The meaning latterly changed to 'togetherness'.The antagonism was always close and reciprocated. Gradually this sense of nearness and joint activity prevailed over opposedness and gave way to togetherness. However, the early meaning still prevails in:

  • withhold, withdraw, withstand.

Compound Words

Compound English Words :: Prefixes and Suffixes

Compound words are of several kinds. There are partnerships such as rainbow and whirlpool where the words are of equal standing. There are the words made with the addition of prepositions where the preposition is the subordinate.

The third kind are suffixes and prefixes where these have previously had lives of their own. In general they have been used so abundantly that their original lives have been superceded and their spelling often shortened. Words like 'full': losing it's final 'l' to become:

  • careful, joyful, thankful.

Another word of this type is '-dom'. In Old English dom meant judgement, as in doomsday and doom. There was no feeling of doom in its earliest incarnations:

  • Kingdom, earldom, dukedom and more recently stardom, officialdom and bumbledom

but in its later form it expanded its meaning into words such as:

  • Freedom, wisdom - simply a state of being.

The ending -ship is similar. It is an offshoot of the word to 'shape' (Old English scieppan = to create). It now has the less stressful implication of a general state of condition rather than a physical shape:

  • Township, friendship and the Anglo-Saxon beership (Old English ge-beorscype) meaning the conviviality of a drinking party - a word that should be resurrected in my opinion (and perhaps it has been by being remembered here!).

The fourth kind is where a verbal fragment employed is used only for word building. These are pure suffixes and prefixes. These have never been independent words.

Compound Words

New Words For Old :: Compound Words :: Conclusion

In general compound words have a more precise meaning than the sum of their separate parts. They were all made for particular situations. They were tailor-made for a special occasion. If they fulfilled their purpose and that purpose survived then the word survived.

They follow the second universal law of language: supply and demand.

Since all our languages are verbal in the first instance words are immediately put to the test: Its success depends on the comprehension of the listener. If the message is received and understood then the word is launched successfully.

--- Remarks, Observations and/or Criticisms are Welcomed ---

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    • gramarye profile image


      8 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      This is a great hub, well written and informative. Voted up!

    • Mrs. J. B. profile image

      Mrs. J. B. 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      Very informative and educational. I enjoyed your hub very much. Thanks


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