• Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) turbulent, boisterous

Long before breakdancing broke, the word breakdance itself emerged in our language as an adjective, meaning tempestuous, turbulent, or energetically unpredictable.

The Oxford English Dictionary has traced this use of the word back to the late 1500s—but it apparently had some earlier currency as a surname.

The patent rolls from the reign of Edward III include an entry for one Robert Brekedaunce, who was granted a licence “to enfeoff Thomas atte Walle of 4 acres of land in the forest of Dene” in Gloucestershire in July 1332.

As odd as Robert’s name may sound, however, fiercely descriptive surnames like this weren’t always so peculiar. In much the same way that surnames were often derived from people’s skills or professions (think Baker, Butcher, Hunter, Potter, Cooper), others alluded to people’s appearance, to their nature, their habits, or some equally notable aspect thereof. Someone named Armstrong, for instance, would have been admired for the physical strength. At the less admirable end of the scale, the Gaelic-origin names Mulligan and Cameron literally mean ‘little bald man’ and ‘crooked nose’ respectively.

Mr Breakdance’s name, meanwhile, probably implies that he was quick to ‘break’ into action, and ultimately appeared hot-headed and tempestuously energetic. And alongside him, the history books contain references to such real-life characters as Henry Millemuth (‘mealy-mouthed’), Matilda Lumppejoye (‘lump-joy’), John Scrothose (‘scratch-trousers’), Geoffrey Drinkgedregges, and Roger Fuckbythenavele (yes, he really existed too).

But as interesting as names like Breakdance and Drinkdregs are as linguistic oddities, they’re also of interest etymologically.

These are all compound words, in which two existing words are joined together, x + y style, to create an entirely new word, xy. The breakdancing we know today was named this way in the 1970s by compounding ‘break’ and ‘dance’: originally, breakdancers performed to tracks based on the isolated and remixed ‘breaks’ between the verses and choruses of pop songs. The surname Breakdance, meanwhile, follows the same x + y structure—but its form, like that of the other names here, is slightly different.

Usually in English, the second or righthand element of a compound word (i.e. the y, not the x) denotes the type of thing the word itself describes. So a schoolboy is a boy who attends school. A bedroom is a room in which a bed is found. Housework is work carried out around a house. And a breakdance is a dance performed to a musical break. The ‘thing’ to which a compound word refers like this is often known as its agent, or instrument—so dance is the agent of breakdance, boy is the agent of schoolboy, and so on.

Because these agents tend to form the second part of compound words in English, our language is said to be a ‘right-headed’, or ‘head-final’ language. You can tell just how significant this right-headedness is by switching compound like these words around: words like boy-school and room-bed don’t exist in English, but if they did you’d probably expect them to describe a school specifically for boys, and a bed located in a room. French, by contrast, is a ‘left-headed’ language, and so contains words like couvre-lit (‘cover-bed’ for bedcover), and gratte-ciel (‘scrape-sky’ for skyscraper).

But the surname Breakdance is different. We know now that it originally described a person—not a kind of dance, nor even a kind of break—meaning that its agent is alluded to by neither one of its compounded roots, x and y. This makes it an example of an exocentric compound—that is, a word whose agent is essentially located outside of the word itself.

Exocentric compounds like these are fairly rare in English, but you’ll likely know a few of them without realising it. A cowhand, for instance, is neither a cow nor a hand, but a farmworker. A nest-egg is neither a nest nor an egg, but a cache of money. And a worrywart is neither a worry nor a wart, but a perpetually anxious person.

But that’s not all that’s going on here. Break down Breakdance even further and you’ll find it’s comprised of a verb (‘break’) plus a noun (‘dance’). Exocentric compounds like these are specifically known as cutthroat compounds: they refer to the performer of the action being described by the compound, just as the word cutthroat describes neither a cut nor a throat, but rather someone who cuts throats. Likewise, a pickpocket picks pockets, a spoilsport spoils sports, and a telltale tells tales. Not all cutthroats are people, however, nor indeed animate beings at all. A scarecrow might scare crows, but it doesn’t do so actively or animately, and neither do breakwaters actively break water, nor passports actually pass ports.

Cutthroat compounds are rare, but because they uproot the normal expectations of English compounds, on the rare occasions we do encounter them they often make for extremely effective and evocative descriptors. So besides familiar examples like spoilsport and pickpocket, in the cutthroat category we find such characters as a mar-feast (someone who spoils a meal), a pinchfart (an obsequious hanger-on), a scape-gallows (someone who has escaped capital punishment), a bitesheep (a hypocritical clergyman), a split-fig (a grocer), and a quakebuttock (a coward). Add to that words like scald-chops (a nineteenth-century nickname for strong tea), whip-belly (rotten ale), and clamberskull (a drink that goes straight to your head), and you soon have a very rich seam of linguistic gold to mine.

Linguist Brianne Hughes has spent more than a decade collecting and studying cutthroat compounds like these, and has so far discovered more than 1,300 of them. If this blog has whet your appetite for more information, do head across to her highly recommended (and brilliantly named) website Encyclopedia Briannica or follow her on Twitter @E_Briannica to find out more about where these words come from, when they were at their most popular, and why gravyboats aren’t boats powered by gravy.

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