Compounds Like Hilltop and Fireplace
1. In the previous lesson you saw that a compound like catbird shortens the phrase “bird like a cat.” Compounds like hilltop and snowball shorten phrases that are very similar:
A hilltop is the top of a hill
A snowball is a ball of snow.
Fill in the blanks:
A fingertip is the tip of a finger .
A heartbeat is a beat of a heart .
A raindrop is a drop of rain.
A windstorm is a storm of wind.
A fireball is a ball of fire.
2. Now try some the other way around:
The cap of the knee is the kneecap .
The side of the mountain is the mountainside .
The shore of the sea is the seashore .
At the circus the master of the ring is the ringmaster .
When you stand on the moon, the shine of the earth is earthshine .
3. Here is a similar pattern:
A fireplace is a place for fires.
A flowerpot is a pot for flowers.
Fill in the blanks:
An armhole is a hole for the arm .
Wallpaper is paper for the wall .
A bookcase is a case for books .
A shoestring is a string for a shoe.
Earphones are phones for the ears .
An armband is a band for an arm .
A battleship is a ship for battle .
A birdcage is a cage for birds.
A boathouse is a house for boats .
A classroom is a room for classes.
4. Try some the other way around:
A bell for the door is a doorbell.
The time for dinner is dinnertime .
A hook for fish is a fishhook.
A cloth for dishes is a dishcloth .
A spread for the bed is a bedspread .
A rack for books is a bookrack.
A house for boats is a boathouse .
A line for clothes is a clothesline .
Ware for dinner is dinnerware .
A ring for the ear is an earring .
A shade for the eyes is an eyeshade .
A brush for the hair is a hairbrush.
Cuffs for your hands are handcuffs .
A shoe for a horse is a horseshoe
A house for ice is an icehouse.
A tie for the neck is a necktie .
A track for races is a racetrack.
A yard for ships is a shipyard.
A sharp-eyed student may wonder why “a place for fires” and “a pot for flowers” become fireplace and flowerpot rather than ∗firesplace and ∗flowerspot. The answer to that good question goes back several centuries. Old English had many noun inflections, including three different numbers (singular, plural, duo), three different genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and several different cases (nominative for subjects, accusative for direct objects and the objects of certain prepositions, dative for indirect objects and the objects of many other prepositions, and genitive for possessive and other functions). When the speakers of Old English formed compounds, they stripped away all those complex inflections and used the uninflected stem, losing any indication of number, gender, and case.
This practice set the pattern for English compounds in general. Normally when we form compounds in which the first component is logically plural, we strip away its plural suffix. The only known cases that don't are woodsman, spokeswoman and a few others, often with man or woman as the second component. This stripping away even affects those nouns that do not form their plural with the addition of -s: for instance, footstool, footwear, and similar foot compounds, which expand out to “a stool for the feet,” “wear for the feet,” are not ∗feetstool, ∗feetwear. In clothesline the plural suffix is not lost, but then clothes is unusual in that it does not have a singular form.
Perhaps a good short answer for the students should the question arise would be “We don't keep the plural suffixes in compounds because we are following a pattern that started many hundreds of years ago when English was still a young language.”