Forming Compound Nouns in Spanish

Such words often make colorful combinations

Umbrella forest
Bosque de paraguas en Bilbao, España. (Umbrella forest in Bilbao, Spain. "Paraguas" is a compound noun.).

Lorena a.k.a. Loretahur / Creative Commons.

A puzzle in Spanish is a head-breaker (rompecabezas), and someone who reads books a lot is a book-warmer (calientalibros). These two words are among the more colorful compound words that have entered the Spanish vocabulary.

Most compound words are more mundane and self-explanatory (a dishwasher, lavaplatos, for example, is just that). Compound words, known in Spanish as palabras compuestas, are quite common.

They are frequently coined, sometimes for humorous effect, although not all impromptu compound words survive or become widely known. An example is comegusanos, a worm eater, which you won't find in a dictionary but will find in occasional use through an Internet search.

How To Form Compound Words

As you may have noticed, the compound words being discussed in this lesson are formed by taking a verb in the third-person singular indicative and following it with a plural noun (or, rarely, a singular noun when it makes more sense to do so). For example, cata (he/she tastes) followed by vinos (wines) gives us catavinos, a winetaster or barhop, depending on the context. Often, these words are the equivalent of the English verb followed by a noun and "-er," as in rascacielos, "skyscraper." (Rascar means to scrape, and the skies are the cielos.) In English, such words can be written as one word, a hyphenated word or two words, but in Spanish these compound words always form one unit.

Words formed in this way are masculine, with rare exceptions, although they are sometimes used in the feminine if they refer to women or girls. Also, the plural of these words is the same as the singular: a can opener is un abrelatas, but two or more are los abrelatas. If the noun part of the word begins with an r, it is typically changed to an rr, as in quemarropa from quema + ropa.

Although no collection of compound words can be complete, on the following page is a list of some of the most common along with many that have been included merely because they're humorous or otherwise interesting. Where the English translation doesn't convey the origin of the Spanish word, a literal translation of the Spanish is included in parentheses. Note that in some cases not all possible meanings of the Spanish words are included.

List of Compound Words

These are among the most common (or, in a few cases, humorous) compound words in Spanish. It is far from a complete list.

abrecartas — letter opener
abrelatas — can opener
apagavelas — candle snuffer
buscapiés — firecracker (it looks for feet)
calientalibros — bookworm (he/she warms books)
calientamanos — handwarmer
calientapiés — footwarmer
calientaplatos — dish warmer
cascanueces — nutcracker
comecocos — something that confuses or brainwashes (it eats coconuts)
cortacuitos — circuit breaker
cortalápices — pencil sharpener (it cuts pencils)
cortapapel — paper knife (it cuts paper)
cortaplumas — penknife (it cuts feathers)
cortapuros — cigar cutter
cuentagotas — medicine dropper (it counts drops)
cuentakilómetros — speedometer, odometer (it counts kilometers)
cuentapasos — pedometer (it counts steps)
cuentarrevoluciones, cuentavueltas — counting machine (it counts revolutions)
cuidaniños — babysitter (he/she cares for children)
cumpleaños — birthday (it fulfills years)
dragaminas — minesweeper (it dredges mines)
elevalunas — window opener
escarbadientes — toothpick (it scratches teeth)
escurreplatos — dish rack (it drains dishes)
espantapájaros — scarecrow (it scares birds)
guardarropas — clothes closet (it keeps clothing)
lanzacohetes — rocket launcher
lanzallamas — flame thrower
lanzamisiles — missile launcher
lavadedos — finger bowl (it cleans fingers)
lavamanos — bathroom sink (it washes hands)
lavaplatos, lavavajillas — dishwasher
limpiabarros — scraper (it cleans mud)
limpiabotas — shoeshine (he/she cleans boots)
limpiachimeneas — chimneysweep (he/she cleans chimneys)
limpiacristales — window cleaner
limpiametales — metal polish (it cleans metal)
limpiaparabrisas — windshield wiper (it cleans windshields)
limpiapipas — pipe cleaner
limpiauñas — fingernail cleaner
a matacaballo — at breakneck speed (in a way that it kills the horse)
matafuegos — fire extinguisher (it kills fires)
matamoscas — fly swatter (it kills flies)
matarratas — rat poison (it kills rats)
matasanos — medical quack (he/she kills healthy people)
matasellos — postmark (it kills stamps)
pagaimpuestos — taxpayer
parabrisas — windshield (it stops breezes)
paracaídas — parachute (it stops falls)
parachoques — bumper (it stops crashes)
paraguas — umbrella (it stops water)
pararrayos — lightning rod (it stops lightning)
parasol — sunshade (it stops sun)
pesacartas — letter scale (it weighs letters)
pesapersonas — scale for people (it weighs people)
picaflor — hummingbird, lady-killer (he/she pecks flowers)
picapleitos — shyster lawyer (he/she encourages lawsuits)
pintamonas — bad painter, an incompetent person (he/she paints copycats)
portaaviones — aircraft carrier (it carries aircraft)
portacartas — letter bag (it carries letters)
portamonedas — purse, handbag (it carries coins)
portanuevas — one who brings news
portaplumas — pen holder
a quemarropa — at point-blank range (in a way that burns clothing)
quitaesmalte — enamel or nail polish remover
quitamanchas — dry cleaner, stain remover (it removes stains)
quitamotas — flatterer (he/she removes defects)
quitanieve, quitanieves — snowplow (it removes snow)
quitapesares — consolation (it takes away sorrow)
quitasol — sunshade (it removes the sun)
quitasueños — anxiety (it takes away sleep)
rascacielos — skyscraper
a regañadientes — unwillingly (in a manner that causes the snarling of teeth)
rompecabezas — puzzle (it breaks heads)
rompeimágenes — iconoclast (he/she breaks icons)
rompeolas — jetty (it breaks waves)
sabelotodo — know-it-all (he/she knows it all)
sacabocados — punch tool (it takes out bites)
sacaclavos — nail remover
sacacorchos — corkscrew (it pulls out corks)
sacadineros — trinket, small scam (it takes money)
sacamanchas — dry cleaner (it takes away stains)
sacamuelas — dentist, quack (he/she pulls teeth)
sacapotras — medical quack (he/she removes hernias)
sacapuntas — pencil sharpener (it sharpens points)
saltamontes — grasshopper (it jumps hills)
salvavidas — certain safety devices (it saves lives)
secafirmas — blotting pad (it dries signatures)
tientaparedes — one who gropes his/her way (he/she feels walls)
tirabotas — boot hook (it stretches boots)
tiralíneas — drawing pen (it draws lines)
tocacasetes — cassette player
tocadiscos — record player
trabalenguas — tongue twister (it ties tongues)
tragahombres — bully (he/she swallows men)
tragaleguas — long-distance or fast runner (he/she swallows leagues; a league is a little-used measurement of distance, equal to about 5.6 kilometers)
tragaluz — skylight (it swallows light)
tragamonedas, tragaperras — slot machine, vending machine (it swallows coins)

Key Takeaways

  • A common type of compound noun is formed in Spanish by using a third-person singular indicative present-tense verb and following it with a plural noun attached to the verb.
  • Such compound nouns are often the equivalent of "noun + verb + -er" in English.
  • Such compound nouns are masculine, and the plural form is identical to the singular.