See downloadable Word document (above) containing my compilation/list of “binary words”
Something got me to thinking about the following: in the English language, when two words are combined to form a compound word.
Two separate words are paired and function as if they were a single, unitary word or idea.
Many of these pairings are ingenious. They most often result in one or both words taking on a new or metaphorical meaning different from the original or literal one. So dotted line (as in sign on the dotted line), while there remains a literal meaning (there are dots arranged in a line), also in our minds becomes something we think of — the two words being conjoined, so to speak — as a thing in and of itself, sort of equivalent to red tape or fine print.
What is a rumor mill or a diploma mill? The word mill is part of the compound. And, there is an adjective, e.g., diploma — formed from a noun. It is the case that many such compounds are formed of two fused nouns where one noun now functions as a qualifier and the other as the substantive. A rumor mill or diploma mill is not really a mill, although there is the idea of mass production. The two nouns having been fused together have become an abstract concept.
Or take smoking gun. There may be literally a smoking gun, but the phrase has become metaphorical, and there is usually not an actual gun. Or, take silver platter, for instance. Something that can be visualized as an object has become metaphorical. And worker bee. In botany, it refers to a specific class of bees. But worker bee has become idiomatic when used to describe a person. And we have the same things with hornet’s nest and close shave.
Often a verb, usually used in the active, has become rather listless as an adjective: e.g., peep show. But there is an implied activity associated with the controlling noun. It’s something generic, a show, and there is something going on that the verb/adjective allows us to visualize: peeping.
Some — indeed, many — of the compounds are devised to serve as euphemisms. have become hackneyed, or serve as stock phrases. To give just one example: damaged goods.
The attached Word document contains examples of “binary words” that I thought up over the course of a few days. None are taken from a list. They were all from off the top of my head. They are in no particular order. The words come from all sorts of activities and walks of life; government, the professions, sports, the high and the low, etc.
— posted by Roger W. Smith