The amusing word ”unputdownable” is printed on the back cover of the paperback edition of one of Dan Brown’s (of “The da Vinci Code” fame) thrillers, as a promotional appetizer. It is an excerpt (quote) from a review of the book and a funny-sounding but entirely understandable “made-up” neologism.

Sounds right

    Besides being a clever way of indicating that this particular thriller of Dan Brown’s holds the reader in great suspense, the word has some unusual qualities. It is one of the very few new compound words in the English language that sound reasonably right.

Compound humour

    Many languages –- German, Scandinavian, Finno-Ugric, et al –- use the device of compound words to create new concepts by combining old words in a novel way. This can sometimes result in ridiculously long and funny-sounding constructs. A lot of jokes, particularly in German, use this fact as a humorous device.

Instantly enriched vocabulary

    But the point of compound words is actually quite serious and practical, because all new compound words are immediately understandable, even if the reader sees them for the first time. In these languages you can enrich your vocabulary immensely and at any time, without having to learn a single new word.

Compound adjectives

    Why is it so difficult to create new compound words in English (and most Romance languages, like French)? Actually, new compound adjectives and adverbs –- in the vein of “unputdownable” –- are not all that difficult to come up with. Here are a few silly –- but hopefully understandable -– examples:

      • turkeytalkingly
      • backtosquareonewise
      • hardtogettingly
      • fireplayingish
      • byheartlearnable
      • lumpinthroatishly

Tough nouns and verbs

    New compound English nouns and verbs that really sound like compounds are a much more difficult to design. These are the only ones that I could come up with, at the spur of the moment:

      • offthecuffspeak
      • countercurrentswimmer
      • crackoverpapering

Mobile in two ways

    The basic grammatical structure of English is Germanic, so compound words would seem to work as well in English as in any other Germanic language. But they don’t. Why is that?

    Let’s examine a simple concept, “mobile phone”. You can’t make a compound word of it in English by simply writing the two words as one.(It works with the American "cellphone", apparently because "cell" is so short.) But “mobilephone” just doesn’t sound right, it sounds stupid. However, in e.g. Swedish (and in German, Danish, Norwegian, etc) the preferred term for your Nokia or Motorola is a compound: “mobiltelefon”.

    Now, the interesting part of it is that you could write “mobil telefon” (as two separate words) in Swedish or German or Danish as well. But in that case the meaning would change. Instead of referring to the ubiquitous electronic device in your pocket –- a mobile phone –- it would denote a different concept: an ordinary stationary telephone which for some reason has been made mobile, to serve some particular purpose.

    The word “mobile”, when used separately, has an adjectival function. But the same word “mobile”, when used as a part of a compound (like in “mobiltelefon”), loses this adjectival function and becomes fused into a new noun concept.

Semantic fusion

    This “semantic fusion”, where the adjective loses its adjectival function when put into a compound word, apparently does not work in English or other Latin-influenced languages. You can’t form the word “communistparty” (like in the corresponding Swedish “kommunistparti”), because the first part “communist” still works as a separate adjectival determinant. The result just looks dead wrong.

    The same is true for e.g. Romanian, a Romance language which in other respects has some grammatical similarities with Swedish. Both languages use the rather unusual device of suffix articles: "the Party" is “Partidul” in Romanian and “Partiet” in Swedish. But while “the Communist Party” would be a compound word in Swedish –- “Kommunistpartiet”, then in Romanian the parts are still kept separate –- “Partidul Communist”.

Limiting Latin influence?

    So it may be that it is the Latin influence on the English language that limits the efficient use of compound words. It’s a pity, but apparently a fact of life. So let us at least rejoice over the neologism “unputdownable”.

      Uri E Bakay says: actually, joe pasquale's 'big thick joe pasquale book' was said to be unputdownable before dan brown's 'book'.

      spiregrain gives us an interesting English compound noun (from Northern Ireland): whataboutery. When somone complains that “your terror group has blown up my town”, then the answer is often “yes, but what about the time your government shot a bunch of our protesters?”. Many statements in NI debates start with “What about …” and the term has stuck.

    And now, dear reader, please go the writeup below (by izubachi) for a clever and knowledgeable analysis of the unputdownable phenomenon, i.e. the reasons why there are so few compound words in English.