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In 2007, lexicographer Erin McKean gave a TED talk that addressed two big problems dictionaries faced at the time. The first was the uninspired transfer of paper dictionaries onto websites without modifying the format to integrate the features and connections possible in its new digital surroundings. The second was the long-term issue of undictionaried words, which causes wide-spread confusion about wordhood and legitimacy. What does it mean if a word does not appear in a dictionary? Is it not good enough, is it too new, or is there just no space for it in the physical book?

Fortunately for us, Erin has been working to solve both of these issues through Wordnik, an online dictionary which includes entries for ALL THE WORDS of English.

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Every word and phrase on Wordnik has its own page, populated with definitions, examples, related words, pictures, pronunciations, and community discussions. Even if Wordnik has not found a traditional dictionary definition for a word, it still gets a page, and any user may add comments, tags, or create a list and add that word to it, giving it context and connecting it to the greater web of English.

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Wordnik is a non-profit, and receives donations through the adoption of words.

In January, I adopted the word quiddity. For adopting quiddity, I received stickers, a certificate, and my name on the Wordnik quiddity page for a year.

I chose quiddity because it sounds fancy, and is a fancy philosophical concept, but also translates as whatness, which belongs in an existential reboot of “Who’s on First.”

I love many words, and next year I may adopt inexpressibles, breadth or companion, but I’d be right chuffed if someone else adopted them first. There are millions of adoptable words, and I have a crush on most of them.

You can adopt any word on Wordnik through the Kickstarter for just $25. People tend to choose established words with well-populated pages, like emoji and cat, but you can adopt elaborate phrases and neologisms just the same.


In the sentence “The monster destroyed the city”, the monster is the agent, and the city is the patient. The monster acts out the action of the verb, while the city has the action of the verb happen to it.

Many people have cast themselves as patients of English, walking cautiously around the language, trying not to wake it. They’re afraid they’ll make mistakes and be punished by an omniscient judge. And while it’s true that people make judgments based on your written and spoken words, you haven’t been sentenced to a life in word prison unless you’ve done it to yourself.

English is a living language. It is dynamic. By using it every day, you are shaping what it is, and what it will become. If you love a word, use it. That’s what makes words real in English.

Putting all of the words of English in the same place, under the same banner, in the same soup, will be, and already is, a very powerful thing. By including ALL THE WORDS, Wordnik is removing the barriers between SAT vocabulary, technical jargon, and regional slang. On Wordnik, step up to the plate stands on equal ground with prestidigitation, bunny hugyonic, hexamethylenediamine, Gordie Howe hat trick, and a million others.

When you encounter a new word in the wild, it could come from anywhere. With Wordnik, you only need to look in one place to find out its secrets and use them to your advantage.

Don’t let language just happen to you. Be an agent of language. Donate to Wordnik right now and claim a little corner of English for yourself.

(And while you’re at it, support the GoFundMe campaign for the Dictionary of American Regional English).

What Are Cutthroat Compounds?

Cutthroats are compounds that name people and things by describing what they do. Cutthroats are made from a transitive verb and a noun, where the noun is the direct object of the verb.

Cutthroats are found in many languages, but my research focuses on the inspired and vulgar creations found in English. Cutthroat productivity is very limited in English, and yet I have collected over 1250 of them in the last 4 years, far beyond previous estimates. You may be familiar with the following cutthroats:ModernCutthroats

For a lively 5 minute primer on compounds and cutthroats, watch my 2013 Ignite talk.

For a brief academic summary of cutthroats, read my 2015 DSNA/SHEL abstract.

For more visuals, look through the slides for 3 talks I’ve given about cutthroats:

  • August 23, 2016 Odd Salon MISCHIEF
    • Cowards, Drunks, and Troublemakers: Cutting Deep with Cutthroat Insults
  • June 6, 2015 DSNA-20/SHEL-9 Conference [explicit]:
    • “Does a Slingshot Sling Shots? Difficulties in Identifying English Cutthroat Compounds”
  • April 15, 2015 IHS Lunch & Learn presentation:
    • A casual introductory talk given to engineer colleagues
  • Nov 14, 2013 Ignite Portland 12:
    • “Cutthroat Backstabbers: The Vulgar World of Verb-Noun Compounding”

For an overwhelming list of all cutthroat candidates catalogued thus far (there are more), check out these 1273 cutthroats.

For more perspective on the topic, read the articles in the 2015 Cutthroat World Tour, or seek out the research of linguists like Volker Gast and Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead.

These compounds have been called many names in the past, but it appears that I’m the first to call them cutthroats. You may be more familiar with tosspot, turncoatscarecrow, wrap-rascal, Shakespeare, or terpsimbrotos. I use the term cutthroats to unify the bunch because cutthroat is the most representative example of the pattern. It is a calque from French coupe-gorge, and many early English cutthroat compounds were French loanwords, which were then translated and played with, creating variations and semantic clumps. Those loans influenced the topics covered by this pattern in the following centuries. I am aware that introducing a new term does not eliminate the problem of multiple terms.

990 Cutthroats

This is an update of the list of 892 Cutthroats posted a month ago. It seems the cutthroats multiplied while I was away in Vancouver.

My deep appreciation to everyone who suggests potential resources and words to me. Each little compound ties into the larger web and illuminates a corner of this pattern. Thank you. I literally can’t do this without you.

As before, there is much research to be done, and it is likely that a number of the attached cutthroats will not stand up to scrutiny. For now, I would rather include non-cutthroats than dismiss them during this wide sweep and regret it later. Once the pace of cutthroat collection slows, I will provide more details about the words−definitions, earliest dates, earliest sources, arguments for and against inclusion.

If you know a cutthroat that does not appear on the list, please let me know in the comments, or contact me on Twitter.

Some cutthroats use and describe vulgarity, so please consider your surroundings before taking a look at the list.

The list is divided into 22 columns of 45 words: 990 Cutthroats

Amuse through Break
Break through Catch
Catch through Cling
Clip through Ding
Ding through Fill
Fill through Gripe
Gripp through Kick
Kick through Lack
Lack through Move
Make through Mumble
Nip through Pinch
Pinch through Quake
Quake through Scald
Scald through Shack
Shack through Slap
Slide through Spill
Spill through Steal
Steal through Stroke
Suck through Tear
Tear through Trouble
Trouble through Wait
Wake through Xpel

892 Cutthroats

Through the ripples of the article by Stan Carey about my research, I’ve been receiving many new cutthroats from the good people of the internet. Commenters fear that they are calling my attention to a cutthroat I already know about, so this is the temporary solution as I continue work on my SHEL/DSNA presentation.

The attached PDF lists 892 words that I’ve been considering off and on as cutthroats. I question the membership of many of these words. Later, when there is time, I will provide a similar list with earliest dates of appearance, general categories (person, tool, game, animal, plant, adj, other), and specific definitions.

Cutthroats are written variably with a space, no space, or hyphen, so check all listings for each verb if you’re looking for a certain entry. If you don’t see one on the list, please tell me about it here in the comments, or tweet @E_Briannica.

The words are divided into 9 columns, 2 pages each, based on the following verbs that begin the compounds:

  • Amuse through Choke
  • Choke through Fetch
  • Fill through Knit
  • Knit through Muck
  • Muddle through Rattle
  • Reel through Shun
  • Shut through Stick
  • Stike through Trouble
  • Trouble through Xpel

NSFW: The list contains vulgar words not suitable for workplace browsing.

List of 892

Note: I have not yet integrated the cutthroats found by David-Antoine Williams’ oed.com script, listed in his Life of Words post. There is much work to be done.

2015 SHEL/DSNA conference abstract

Does a Slingshot Sling Shots?

Difficulties in Identifying English Cutthroat Compounds

Cutthroats are agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun [V+N] compounds that name people and objects by describing their function (i.e., a cutthroat is a person who cuts throats). They are composed of a transitive verb and its direct object. 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 and wardecorps). 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.

Gast (2008) compiled a database of “over 400” cutthroat compounds. Using his references, Hughes (2012) created a separate database with 483 cutthroats. In subsequent research, that list expanded to 815 compounds, 50 of which (slingshot, bundletail, rattle-head, etc.) currently lack the evidence to be definitively classified as cutthroats.

Classifying the structure of a compound in any language is more complicated than it appears, especially when the evidence is only available in dictionaries, where there is little context. The two constituents in a compound can have any possible relationship, but lack the syntactic markers (which are available in larger phrases and sentences) to show it. There is no formula that determines how compound components relate to each other. Languages rely on features such as headedness, gender, case, and word class markers to guide their readers to the intended meaning.

The English language does not feature gender, case, or a regular use of word class markers. This has resulted in high productivity of synthetic compounding patterns such as [N+V+er] and [V+ing+N], which use suffixes to compensate for the ambiguity unleashed by homonyms and zero derivation. Headedness, then, is the only reliable attribute in the pursuit of understanding English compounds. However, cutthroats are exocentric, and therefore headless.

How, then, is it possible to find 815 compounds from a rare pattern, and positively identify them without the benefit of syntactic markers? The answer lies in taking advantage of the restricted tendencies of English cutthroats, namely the semantic clumping of certain verbs, nouns, and topics.

Some topics such as criminals, misers, drunks, and children’s games appear again and again, while many others have never been observed. Verbs also clump (break, turn, make, lack, kill), with the top 11 verbs accounting for 150 compounds alone. Nouns recur as well, the most common being water, penny, devil, and nothing.

Locating cutthroats is a difficult task on its own, since the topics covered within the pattern are not found in standard dictionaries or in well-documented fields such as law, religion, or medicine. Instead, cutthroats are memorable vulgar insults, occupational surnames, and regional terms for plants and animals. Therefore, any document in English with ties to the vernacular may be a source of forgotten cutthroats, and can be explored using the following method:

With the OED Online as the starting point, the 260 known verbs in the pattern are searched in reference materials such as dictionaries of criminal cant and surname databases. Synonyms of those verbs are also searched, often resulting in new finds. In digital databases, where searches are not limited by alphabetical listing, new cutthroats may also be found using common nouns and topics. Progress is made by alternately pursuing leads from each of these three clusters. In one example, kill-priest (port wine) led to strangle-priest, strangle-goose, saddle-goose, and saddle-nag. The high productivity of [kill+N] and compounds related to the clergy led to a search of other [strangle+N] compounds, then [V+goose] compounds, and finally [saddle+N] compounds. Research continues in this manner, constantly expanding and strengthening the web of cutthroat verbs, nouns, and topics.

With each new connection, more cutthroat candidates are rediscovered, and the membership of previously indeterminate cutthroats can be decided. The current list of questionable compounds will likely increase with further searches, then contract as new data integrates them into the pattern. Further work can be done by seeking new cutthroats, analyzing the expanded database, and exploring Romance cutthroats, all in an effort to advance the understanding of this shadowy footnote of English morphology.

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