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Rules compound the confusion over compound-word plurals

Call us odd, but in my family we sometimes pretend that the plural of a compound word follows the odd pattern that "passer-by" and "mother-in-law" follow, and make the plural of a word like "bookcase" into "bookscase." We all know, of course, that this isn't correct, but what is the exact rule?

Most compounds that are made up of two nouns _ whether they appear as one word, two words or a hyphenated word _ form their plurals by pluralizing the final element only; a word like "bookcase" is pluralized as "bookcases," "book club" as "book clubs," and "bird-watcher" as "bird-watchers." Nouns that are made up of words that are not nouns also form their plurals on the last element, as in the plurals "breakthroughs" and "close-ups." Matters become more complicated than this, though.

If a compound is made of a noun with the "-er" suffix and an adverb, only the noun element is pluralized. This means that "runner-up" becomes "runners-up," "onlooker" becomes "onlookers," and "passer-by" becomes "passers-by." For a compound made up of two nouns separated by a preposition, the first noun is pluralized to form the plural, as in "attorneys-at-law" and "chiefs of staff."

Compounds made up of a noun followed by an adjective are usually pluralized by adding "s" to the noun, as when "heir apparent" becomes "heirs apparent." But if the adjective tends to be understood as a noun, the compound may have more than one plural form. In this way, both "poets laureate" and "poet laureates" are acceptable.

For compounds that consist of two nouns separated by a preposition and a modifier, plurals are formed in various ways. "Snake in the grass" is pluralized as "snakes in the grass," but "jack-in-the-box" is pluralized as both "jack-in-the-boxes" or "jacks-in-the-box." That last one sounds odd to our ear, but it may go over well in your family.

Evolving pronunciations

When I was in college, a language professor told us that the words "shirt" and "skirt" were basically derived from the same Old English word, the "c" being pronounced hard or soft. Recently, while I was reading Shakespeare, the word "canker" was used to describe the death of a character. Is there a similar relationship between "canker" and "cancer"?

Pronunciation differs and develops over the course of history, and you have spotted two pair of words that are related. Their relationship, however, comes from two very different sources.

The Anglo-Saxon period saw more than three centuries of contact between the Scandinavian Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, which left a permanent mark on our language. The language of the Scandinavians was closely related to Old English, being derived from a common Germanic source. Both languages had many words in common, but others had become differentiated by independent development in each language. The sound combination "sk" of the parent Germanic language had become "sh" (spelled "sc') very early in Old English, but it kept its old value in the Scandinavian languages.

Our modern English "skirt" derives from Old Norse "skyrta," which has many Germanic cognates. Among them was Old English "scyrte," which has given us modern "shirt." Although both the Scandinavian and Old English words survived with different uses in this case, some "sk" words, like "skill," simply replaced their English "sc" counterparts.

"Canker" and "cancer," as well as "chancre," share a different relationship. Latin "cancer," or its Old North French derivative "cancre," is the source of our word "canker."

"Cancer" itself was reborrowed from Latin in the 14th century with a soft "c," Latin pronunciation being modified in England and losing the hard "c" before an "e" by that time. Meanwhile, in French, Latin "c" before "a" had become "ch" (pronounced "sh") and yielded "chancre," which English borrowed in the 17th century. We thus have three English words all going back to Latin "cancer," and each showing the effects of the vicissitudes of phonetic history.

Bloody history

Where does the phrase "bite the bullet" come from? My guess is the military, though why anyone would actually bite a bullet is beyond me. Please explain.

You are half right in supposing that "bite the bullet" (and the earlier "bite on the bullet") comes from the military. The phrase originated in military medical practices of the 19th century.

During the American Civil War, unsanitary conditions and poorly trained field surgeons were just two reasons that amputation was the most commonly performed operation for a wounded or gangrenous arm or leg. In the days before antiseptics, it was easier to remove the infected part than to stop the infection.

But the field surgeons didn't have anesthesia, either _ perhaps just a bit of whiskey, as in old Westerns. To help the patient endure the pain of amputation, they would give him a bullet or some other hard object to bite down on, in much the way you might clench your fist while enduring a painful injection or tooth extraction.

From this literal biting of bullets arose the figurative sense "to enter with resignation upon a difficult or distressing course of action." Medical practices have changed immeasurably, of course, but most everyone still has to "bite the bullet" on some occasions.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.

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