From the 6/25/07 New Yorker
NO COMMENT DEPARTMENT
From the San Francisco Chronicle.
With California Invasive Weeds Awareness Week just
around the corner (July 17-23), there are two words every Californian
should know: yellow star thistle.
Yes, I know, how silly of the Chron
(or its source on invasive weeds): yellow
is obviously three words. Or is it?
Counting "the number of words" in an expression is a tricky
business. The New Yorker
staff is acting like the word counting software that comes with your
word processor: basically, it counts things separated by spaces.
That means the algorithm is sensitive to the arbitrariness of English
English noun-noun compounds, including those whose meanings are in part
conventionalized, are written in three ways: solid (doghouse
), hyphenated (dog-ear
), separated (dog tag
). There are some
generalizations about which spelling is used for which compounds, but
there's a good bit of arbitrariness, and also significant
variation. In any case, as far as the system of English goes, for
conventionalized compounds the three types are entirely parallel, and a
dictionary of reasonable size will have entries for all three.
We're looking at "a word" in each case, regardless of how they're
written -- granted, a word that has words as its parts, but still in
some sense a word.
instance, do have entries for star
(and star anise
and star apple
and star fruit
). And my Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers
(Niehaus & Ripper 1976) has the yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis
) listed in
its index under "star thistle, yellow" (also under "thistle, yellow
star", using the head noun thistle
of the compound star thistle
So you could argue that yellow star
is in fact a two-word expression: yellow
plus the compound noun star thistle
for this season of the year. And the pernicious yellow star
thistles are in fact blooming on the hillsides.]
[Addendum 6/26: Mae Sander has written with a plausible proposal about how the Chron
ended up with "yellow star thistle": the piece originally had "yellow starthistle" -- this spelling can be found in many publications, for instance the University of California Cooperative Extension fact sheet on
the plant -- but a proofreader "fixed" the spelling by separating the two parts of "starthistle" (I myself dislike this spelling, because I'm inclined to (mis)read it as "start-histle"). Now, this requires a proofreader who isn't really reading the text for content, but there are such people -- people who would change "an item of data is" to "an item of data are" because, sigh, they change ALL
instances of "data is" to "data are".]
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 23, 2007 08:29 PM