Catchall for cutthroats

What is the difference between a catch-all and a catch-phrase? Both are compounds formed as Verb+Noun, but in catch-all, the noun is the direct object of the verb, whereas in catch-phrase it is the subject. That is, a catch-all is something that catches all things, whereas a catch-phrase is not something that catches phrases – it is a phrase that catches something. Get it?

Recently there has been some discussion of catch-all type compounds, which Brianne Hughes has named “cutthroat compounds,” after one of the more suggestive of these. Apparently they’re rare, because they violate a general tendency for compounds in English to put the ‘head’ (e.g. phrase) on the right (‘right-headedness’). Compare F. ouvre-bouteille to E. bottle-opener (not open-bottle), which follows the most common English productive pattern, Object-Verb+er. If catch-all had followed the normal pattern, we’d be talking about an all-catcher, as we talk about dog-catchers and wind-catchers.

Back to cutthroats. Stan Carey at Sentence First recently wrote up a post on them, following on from Hughes’s work. I caught up with it yesterday via LanguageHat. Here’s some of what Carey has to say:

Cutthroats largely constitute ‘a treasury of nonce words’, having peaked centuries ago. Survivors tend to be peripheral, found in slang, regional dialects, and children’s short-lived innovations. But Brianne is on a mission to catalogue them and has recorded several hundred, including such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person), spoil-paper (bad writer), whiparse (abusive teacher), eat-bee (bird), lacklooks (unattractive person), stretchgut (glutton), clutchfist (miser), and catch-fart (servant who walks behind their master).

One I’ve always liked is smell-feast, meaning someone who sniffs out a feast and comes uninvited to share in it. The OED’s first citation for this word, from 1519, refers to ‘smellefyestes, lycke dysshes, and franchars [who] come vncalled’. Franchars derives from franch, an obsolete word meaning ‘feed greedily’, while the more transparent ‘lycke dysshes’ counts as another cutthroat. Here is Brianne on their general status:

Cutthroats are freely productive in Romance languages, which have a V.O. (verb-object) structure and are left-headed. English, which is V.O. and right-headed, has slight native productivity (Clark et al, 1986) that has been amplified and augmented by French borrowings (e.g., coupe-gorge [cutthroat] and wardecorps [bodyguard]). English has been slowly producing new cutthroats since the 1200s up through 2015, mainly in the form of nonce personal insults. Most cutthroats are obsolete slang, but about 40, including ​pickpocket​, pinchpenny, rotgut​ and​ spitfire, are commonly known in Modern English.

Hunting them down and determining their cutthroat status can be tricky, since there’s no formula to determine how a compound’s parts relate to each other. This is the subject of a presentation Brianne will give at the SHEL/DSNA conference in Vancouver in June (‘Does a Slingshot Sling Shots? Difficulties in Identifying English Cutthroat Compounds’), from whose Abstract the quotation above is taken. For more on this see Laurie Bauer, ‘English Exocentric Compounds’ (PDF).

Many of the most obvious cutthroats, including most of the ones mentioned above, are OED headwords, but it occurred to me that others must be recorded under the main verb. Since I’ve recently been spending a lot of time looking at the OED’s combinational forms, I thought I’d see if a script could round up some of these lurkabout cutthroats. Call it a catchsome for cutthroats [the twelve catch- cutthroats in OED aren’t caught, e.g., since, unusually, they appear under a special headword, “catch-, comb. form.”, rather than under “catch, v.”].

All the script does is find headwords with ‘v.’ marked as the part of speech, and reports any left-headed combinations recorded in the entry. I got a list of about 1,660, which I curated down to 189 178 (not counting spelling variations). Here are those I think are good candidates:

bobchin; brewbate; dashbuckler; fill basket; fill knag; fill-belly; fill-dike; fill-ditch; fill-panch; fill-sack; keep-door; keep-friend; lack learning; lackall, lack-all; lacke-braine; lack-grace; lackland; lack-laughter; lack-life; lack-linen; lack-lookes; lack-love; lack-minds; lack-pity; lacksense; lack-spittle; lackstock; lack-thought; licke-halter; lickfinger; lick-foot; lickladle; lickmadowp; lick-platter; lickspit; lick-trencher, licktrencher; mock-beggar; mock-clown; mock-guest; nip-bud; nipcake; nip-crust; nipfarthing; pluckcrow ; puzzle-brain; puzzle-cap; puzzle-monkey; puzzle-text; puzzle-wit; quake-belly; quake-breech; quake-buttock; quake-tail; rest-harrow; run-the-hedge; runtherout; scape-grace, scapegrace; scape-gallows;  scapethrift; scape-Tyburn, scape-tiborne; scare-bear; scare-beggar; scare-bullfinch; scare-christian; scaregoose ; scare-sinner; scare-sleep; scatter-story; scatter-tuft; scrape-all; scrape-good; scrape-gut; scrape-pan; scrape-pelfe; scrape-penny, scrapepenie y; scrape-scall; scrape-shoe; scratch-eye; scratch-my-back, scratchback; scratchpenny ; shake-hands; shake-tail; shit-breech; shit-brich; shite-fire; shittabeds; shufflewing; skip-tooth; stay stomach; stay-plough; stay-time; steal coat; steal placard; steal-clothes; steal-counter; steal-truth; stick-all; stickdirt; stickjaw, stick-jaw; stoope-frog; stopgamble; stop-game; stop-gap; stophole, stop-hole; stop-loss; stop-motion; stop-mouth; stop-press, stop press; stop-ship; stop-tap, stop tap; stop-throat; stopwater, stop-water; story-all; stretchehalter, stretch-halter; stretch-gut;  stretch-hemp; stretch-leg, stretch leg; stretchneck, stretch-neck; stretch-rope; strike-a-light; strike-fire; strip-bush; stroygood, stroy-good; swill-bowl; swill-flagon; tickle text; tickle-brain; tickletoby, tickle-toby; trouble-belly; trouble-cup; trouble-feast;   troublehouse, trouble-house; trouble-rest; trouble-states; trouble-tombs; trouble-town; trouble-world; trouble-worlds; twitch-ballock; twitchbell; twitchclocks; wag pasty, wagpastie; wag-feather; waghalter; wag-leg;  wagstart; wagstring, wag-string; wagtail; wag-wanton; walke-street; want-grace; wiggle-tail, wiggletail.

There’s a category of words that came up that may be cutthroats, but are slightly different. A bob-chin (clear cutthroat), for instance, is one who bobs his chin.  But bob-apple, similarly to bob-a-cherry, leapfrog, shove-halfpenny etc., is the name of a game in which apples are bobbed (for) by players. Leapfrog doesn’t leap frogs, exactly, though frogs are leapt (metaphorically) in the playing. So I’ve separated those out:

bob-a-cherry, bob-cherry; bob-apple; hop frog; hop-crease; hop-crease; hop-scotch; hunt the fox; hunt the hare; hunt the squirrel; hunt the whistle; hunt-the-slipper; leap-frog; pitch-button; pitch-farthing; pitch-halfpenny; plucke-buffet; pluck-penny; prick-the-clout; prick-the-garter; prick-the-loop; shove-halfpenny; shuffle-cap; skip-frog; skip-lice; skip-rope; strip-the-willow.

My favorites from these two lists are:

brewbate: one who stirs up quarrelling or dissension.

fill-(the)-dike, fill-ditch: epithets for the month of February.

plucke-buffet: a competition between archers, in which he who missed or failed ‘caught’ a buffet from his competitor.

stoop frog: an oppressor of frogs (the King Stork of the fable).

twitch-ballock: an earwig; also, a large black beetle.

Several of the regular cutthroats are botanical, such as puzzle-monkey (a familiar name of the Chilean tree Araucaria imbricata, from the difficulty which a monkey would have in climbing it) and (especially) ornithological, like shuffle-wing, and also lapwing, which isn’t on the list because it’s listed as a headword in OED rather than a combination (but lap from OE hleapan, to leap).

Which reminds me of a lovely translation of the anonymous Middle English poem,”The Names of the Hare”, which uses some cutthroats among its various ingenious naming formulas. It’s fun to see where the original uses this pattern but the translation doesn’t, and vice versa:

hareThe Names of the Hare

Trans. Seamus Heaney

The man the hare has met
will never be the better of it
except he lay down on the land
what he carries in his hand—
be it staff or be it bow—
and bless him with his elbow
and come out with this litany
with devotion and sincerity
to speak the praises of the hare.
Then the man will better fare.

‘The hare, call him scotart,
big-fellow, bouchart,
the O’Hare, the jumper,
the rascal, the racer.

Beat-the-pad, white-face,
funk-the-ditch, shit-ass.

The wimount, the messer,
the skidaddler, the nibbler,
the ill-met, the slabber.

The quick-scut, the dew-flirt,
the grass-biter, the goibert,
the home-late, the do-the-dirt.

The starer, the wood-cat,
the purblind, the furze cat,
the skulker, the bleary-eyed,
the wall-eyed, the glance-aside
and also the hedge-springer.

The stubble-stag, the long lugs,
the stook-deer, the frisky legs,
the wild one, the skipper,
the hug-the-ground, the lurker,
the race-the-wind, the skiver,
the shag-the-hare, the hedge-squatter,
the dew-hammer, the dew-hoppper,
the sit-tight, the grass-bounder,
the jig-foot, the earth-sitter,
the light-foot, the fern-sitter,
the kail-stag, the herb-cropper.

The creep-along, the sitter-still,
the pintail, the ring-the-hill,
the sudden start,
the shake-the-heart,
the belly-white,
the lambs-in-flight.

The gobshite, the gum-sucker,
the scare-the-man, the faith-breaker,
the snuff-the-ground, the baldy skull,
(his chief name is scoundrel.)

The stag sprouting a suede horn,
the creature living in the corn,
the creature bearing all men’s scorn,
the creature no one dares to name.’

When you have got all this said
then the hare’s strength has been laid.
Then you might go faring forth—
east and west and south and north,
wherever you incline to go—
but only if you’re skilful too.
And now, Sir Hare, good-day to you.
God guide you to a how-d’ye-do
with me: come to me dead
in either onion broth or bread.


  • […] Follow-ups at Language Hat, Fritinancy, and The Life of Words. […]

  • You’re my new best friend, sir. I should have employed you months ago. Where’s the tip jar?

    Games seem to be a sub-set of cutthroats, which I include in my list, but mark them so that future linguists can tailor the master list to the perspective of their research question. (Only native productivity, only surnames, only adjectives, omitting -good, little, and -right cutthroats).

    I’d heard the tree called monkey puzzle, not puzzle monkey. Puzzle-text is a cutthroat about lawyers I believe. I have makebate, but probably not brewbate. There’s no way I have stoup-frog or stroy-good, and without you I’m not sure how I ever would have found them.

    And of course-there are many cutthroats the OED does not have, but the best way to find them elsewhere is to have a comprehensive list of the verbs found in existing cutthroats, so that non-searchable paper dictionaries (or scanned images) can be used. You’ve verbed out the OED, which will make my future slang/surname dictionary searches more thorough.

    Seeing that I am currently at my office job, I don’t have my list in front of me, but I know you’ve pushed the cutthroat count over 900 with this script. Wow. Today is a good day.

  • Apparently somebody thought it should be renamed if transplanted:

    1885 Pall Mall G. 11 Mar. 11/1 To see and paint the old forests of Araucaria imbricata, known in England as the puzzle-monkey tree, rather unreasonably, as there are no monkeys here to puzzle.

  • Woops – that should have been “stoop frog” (sv stoop, v.1) – I’ve corrected it in the post.

  • […] May 15, 2015; The Life of Words […]

  • […] yet integrated the cutthroats found by David-Antoine Williams’ script, listed in his Life of Words post. There is much work to be […]

  • Hugo wrote:

    Hardly the be-all and end-all, but I wrote a script to approach this from another angle: look for hyphenated nouns where the first part can a verb and the second a noun.

    Finds and more info:

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