May 05, 2005

Is "compound" code for "cult"?

From Mark Steyn's defense of polygamy in the May Atlantic:

A nice middle-aged gay man in a committed relationship, with a weekend home in Connecticut, where he serves as a popular longtime usher at the local "open and affirming" Congregational Church? Alas, no. Owen Allred was a proponent of a far less fashionable minority marriage cause: he was the patriarch of the Apostolic United Brethren, Utah's second largest polygamous group, a church with some 5,000 to 7,000 believers, many of them living a confetti throw from Allred's home in Bluffdale, on the edge of Salt Lake City. [...]

I say "home," though The New York Times preferred "compound." The precise point at which a "ranch," a "bungalow," or an "eighteenth-century saltbox with many original features" becomes a "compound" is best left to real-estate agents ("Extensively remodeled compound with drop-dead views of ATF agents at the tree line calling for backup"). But the Times seems to use the term as universally accepted shorthand for "wacky cult"; and certainly Owen Allred attracted his share of lurid headlines over the decades.

Steyn is claiming that home / compound is one of those bandit / terrorist / militant / freedom fighter kind of things, where the choice of terminology tells you something about the attitudes of the writer and the publication as well as about the nature of the person or thing being described.

But is it true? In terms of description of real estate, it's hard to tell, because we don't know what the "compounds" are physically like, in comparison to the "homes", the "estates", the "campuses" and so on. But what about on the linguistic side? When does the NYT uses "compound" as a word for "[a] building or buildings, especially a residence or group of residences, set off and enclosed by a barrier"?

To start with, I was surprised to learn that this residential sense of compound comes from Malay kampong "village", rather than from Latin con+ponere "put together", as the "mixture" sense of compound does. The spelling "compound" for the residential sense is apparently a sort of folk etymology, an eggcorn that made it. The OED gives as the original gloss

The enclosure within which a residence or factory (of Europeans) stands, in India, China, and the East generally.
Supposed by Yule and Burnell to have been first used by Englishmen in the early factories in the Malay Archipelago, and to have been thence carried by them to peninsular India on the one hand and China on the other. In later times, it has been taken to Madagascar, East and West Africa, Polynesia, and other regions where Englishmen have penetrated, and has been applied by travellers to the similar enclosures round native houses.

Note that factory here means a trading station, where a factor does business, not "manufactory". Also note that it's sometimes hard to distinguish this use from what the AHD gives as an alternative sense, "[a]n enclosed area used for confining prisoners of war".

Anyhow, in the past month, the NYT has used the word "compound" 47 times, according to the LexisNexis index. Of these, one was the "prisoner" use:

The G.I.'s at Abu Ghraib lived in cells while most of the detainees were housed in large overcrowded tents set up in outdoor compounds that were vulnerable to mortars fired by insurgents.

while 24 were examples of the "enclosure of buildings" use. Of these, two were associated with a cult (the Branch Davidians), while the others involved military compounds (four times), diplomatic compounds (four times), and compounds of very wealthy individuals (three times -- Richard Geffen twice and Herbert Bayard Swope once). The other 11 were all over the place, e.g.

[Governors Island Wants a Developer, a Idea, Anyway] Among the many possible uses already envisioned are an academic compound; a hotel, spa and conference center; film production facilities; museums; office space; sites for concerts; and a marina. Plans also call for the maintenance of a public path along the island's 2.2-mile waterfront perimeter, and the creation of a 40-acre public park.

[Secluded Retreats on the Big Island] Ramashala, a two-building compound that opened this year in Pahoa in the Kehena area, just off the coastal road, functions both as a conventional inn and a spiritual retreat.

[Where West Africa Goes Straight to Video] Iroh, a 43-year-old real estate broker from Nigeria, whose film purchases that day included ''Behold Family Life,'' about rivalries within a family compound in Nigeria. ''Maybe in the next 10 years, it will come up. It will be as big as Bollywood.''

[Bus and Bridge Reunite Kashmiris Long Kept Apart] On Wednesday, they stormed a government tourism compound where Indian officials said scheduled passengers were being housed as a protective measure after repeated threats.

Mark Steyn may feel, on reflection, that an academic compound is indeed a cult building, but I don't think that's what he meant when he wrote that "the Times seems to use the term [compound] as universally accepted shorthand for 'wacky cult'". And I'm sure that he doesn't think that Nigerian family life is an intrinsically cultish subject. Thus the probability that a given NYT usage of (residential) compound implies "wacky cult" has not been very high in the past month -- 1 in 12, or about .08.

The NYT usage over longer periods of time suggests that the true rate is even lower. Over the past year, there have been 15 stories that mention both a cult and a compound. As it turns out, only 8 of these are real cults and building-type compounds -- the others are things like cult movies or designers, or compounds that are mixtures or drugs. The real cults named were the Branch Dravidians (twice), the Aryan Nation (twice), the Manson family, the Yearning for Zion Ranch (polygamists in Texas), the Oneida commune (a 19th-century social experiment), and Sri Chinmoy. In comparison, there have been 275 stories that include the words compound and military, and 71 stories that include both compound and embassy.

This confirms the evidence of the past month's stories: P(cult | compound) appears to be well under 0.1. We can't just say that the NYT uses compound to mean residential buildings of a cult, unless we add a long list of exceptions -- a military compound, a diplomatic compound, a very wealthy person's compound, an academic compound, a Nigerian family compound, and so on.

Still, Steyn may be on to something. Maybe he's intuiting a different sort of lexical inference: not the probability of cult given compound, but rather the probability of compound given cult, compared to the probability of other choices such as estate under the same condition. And maybe all he means is that this ratio of conditional probabilities is significantly higher for cult than for other types of residence-owners -- and that this creates an association that can have communicative force in the case of groups like polygamists. So let's come at the problem from that direction.

Faced with a particular residential complex -- some buildings and grounds where people live -- a writer can choose among several different English words. Two choices with rather different connotations are compound and estate. If Steyn is right, then the choice is more likely to be compound in the case of the residence of a "wacky cult" than in the case of the residence of an industrial mogul or a rock star. Contrariwise, the mogul or rock star's home is more likely to be called an estate than the cult's home is. Of course, the mogul's home will probably be more luxurious as well, consistent with the posh connotations of estate. Still, the tendency [cult → compound, mogul → estate, interpreted as P(compound | cult)/P(estate | cult) > P(compound | mogul)/P(estate | mogul)] will plausibly generate the indexical or connotative meaning that Steyn calls a "universally accepted code".

We can explore this idea using the (admittedly crude and inaccurate) measure of how often specified words occur in the same story (according to LexisNexis):

Word Count Time period With compound With estate
1 year
1 year
rock star
1 year
1 year
5 years
10 years

Because of word-sense ambiguity, let's stipulate that these numbers are worth very little until the usage is checked, case by case. I'm sure, for example, that many of the heiress & estate stories are about real estate or estate-the-inheritance, and not estate-the-residence. Still, this table has the shape of a plausible argument, even if it isn't yet an argument that anyone should rely on.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 5, 2005 07:21 AM