What Is an Exocentric Compound?

Description, Examples, and Observations for Better Understanding

Man getting pickpocketed, mid section
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In morphology, an exocentric compound is a compound construction that lacks a head word: That is, the construction as a whole is not grammatically and/or semantically equivalent to either of its parts. Also called a headless compound. Contrast with endocentric compound (a construction that fulfills the same linguistic function as one of its parts).

Put another way, an exocentric compound is a compound word that's not a hyponym of its grammatical head. As discussed below, one well-known type of exocentric compound is the bahuvrihi compound (a term that is sometimes treated as a synonym for exocentric compound).

Linguist Valerie Adams illustrates exocentricity in this way: "The term exocentric describes expressions in which no part seems to be of the same kind as the whole or to be central to it. The noun change-over is exocentric, and so are 'verb-complement' noun compounds like stop-gap, along with adjective + noun and noun + noun compounds like air-head, paperback, lowlife. These compounds...do not denote the same kind of entity as their final elements." Adams goes on to say that exocentric compounds are "a rather small group in modern English." 

Examples and Observations

Delmore Schwartz

"The new public attitude becomes clear if you ask this leading question: 'Which would you rather be, an egghead or a blockhead?'"

Matthew Ricketson

"[Barry] Humphries, whose act combines lowbrow antics with a highbrow aesthetic, is both well educated and well read, as the range of images and references in his conversation displays."

Lexicalized Metonyms

According to Volkmar Lehmann in "Categories of Word-Formation.""[E]xocentric compounds are a major type of metonyms, not only in ad hoc settings... but also as lexicalized items with often highly idiosyncratic, fixed interpretations, as a few examples in (84) show:

(84a) green beret, blue jacket, red shirt, blue stocking, brass hat, red cap
(84b) red skin, flatfoot, red head, long nose
(84c) pickpocket, fly over, scarecrow, breakfast

Lexicalized metonyms are frequently adjective-noun compounds with the bearer of the specified attributes providing the head, as the examples (84a) and (84b) show; other types are based on verb complement combination where the omitted agent of the verb supplies the head, as in cases like (84c)."

Bahuvrihi Compounds

According to Laurie Bauer in "The Typology of Exocentric Compounding," "There is no surprise in having bahuvrihi compounds as one of the types of exocentric compound—or at least, if there is, it is because the Sanskrit label is sometimes appropriated for exocentrics as a group rather than for one type of exocentric.... As is well known, the label is from Sanskrit, where it exemplifies the types. The elements are bahu-vrihi 'much rice' and it means 'having much rice' (e.g. of a village) or 'one who/which has much rice.'... The alternative label 'possessive compound' is explained by the example of bahuvrihi,...though there are some examples where the gloss is less obvious: for example, English red-eye (with various meanings including 'cheap whisky' and 'overnight flight') does not clearly denote anything which has red eyes, but rather something which causes someone to have red eyes.

"Typically, bahuvrihis are made up of a noun (the possessed noun) and a modifier for that noun."
In "Adjectives as Nouns," Anne Aschenbrenner says, "Exocentric compounds can also function as a means to denote a characteristic of a person. Marchand (1969) however, refuses the term 'compound' in 'exocentric compound' because he argues that a bahuvrihi compound like paleface would not imply the paraphrase *'a face that is pale' but 'a person who has a pale face.' Hence, the combination must be called a derivate (i.e. due to zero-derivation) in his opinion."


Adams, Valerie. Complex Words in English, Routledge, 2013.

Aschenbrenner, Anne. Adjectives as Nouns, Mainly as Attested in Boethius Translations From Old to Modern English and in Modern German. Herbert Utz Verlag, 2014.

Bauer, Laurie. "The Typology of Exocentric Compounding." Cross-Disciplinary Issues in Compounding, edited by Sergio Scalise and Irene Vogel. John Benjamins, 2010.

Lehmann, Volkmar. "Categories of Word-Formation." Word-Formation: An International Handbook of the Languages of Europe, vol. 2, edited by Peter O. Müller et al., Walter de Gruyter, 2015.

Marchand, Hans. The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation. 2nd ed, C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969, pp. 13-14.

Ricketson, Matthew, The Best Australian Profiles, edited by Matthew Ricketson. Black, 2004.

Schwartz, Delmore. "Survey of Our National Phenomena." The Ego Is Always at the Wheel, edited by Robert Phillips. New Directions, 1986.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Exocentric Compound?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/exocentric-compound-words-1690583. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is an Exocentric Compound? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/exocentric-compound-words-1690583 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Exocentric Compound?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/exocentric-compound-words-1690583 (accessed June 6, 2023).