Bahuvrihi Compounds

By Mark Nichol

Have you ever described someone as a blockhead? Have you explained an action as heavy-handed? Have you ever referred to someone as white-collar? If so, then you’ve employed a bahuvrihi compound.

Such terms are compounds in which the first word of each pair is a feature of the second; the composition is an adjective (or, occasionally, a noun) attached to a noun to itself serve as an adjective or a noun. The name, from Sanskrit, is itself a bahuvrihi compound that means “much rice” but refers, as a form of synecdoche, to a rich man. (A synecdoche is a term that uses a part of something to refer to the whole, such as hand in the direction “Give me a hand” when what one is asking for is the use of one’s entire person.)

Bahuvrihi compounds often refer to a characteristic of a person. They can be neutral (barefoot) or derogatory (lowlife). They can refer to a physical feature (graybeard or redhead) or to status within a profession or pursuit (blue-collar and white-collar, or tenderfoot) or an attitude associated with one’s place in society (bluestocking or highbrow). Compounds such as heavy-handed can describe an approach or a personality trait.

They can also pertain to an object (houndstooth, to describe a fabric pattern; also styled hound’s-tooth) or to an animal (sabretooth); other compounds that, like these, consist of two nouns include several pejorative terms for someone perceived to be dumb or foolish: blockhead, bonehead, half-wit, and knucklehead. By contrast, a person considered highly intelligent is called an egghead.

Note that bahuvrihi compounds are usually closed; the aforementioned blue-collar and white-collar, as well as half-wit and heavy-handed, are exceptions, as is the term “old money,” to refer to a family that has been wealthy for generations (or an individual from such a family). Whether the compound is open, hyphenated, or closed, is, as is the case with compounds in general, random; note blue-collar and bluestocking, for example.

Bahuvrihi compounds are useful resources for writers as expressive ways to describe a person or, occasionally, a place or a thing.

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