Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Outreach for Shut-Ins: The Joy of English "Mashups"

A few years ago in the Lounge I talked about one of the delightful features of English that we might call a mashup. That's a good term for this type of word because it exemplifies the phenomenon: a word formed by the fusing of a verb and a particle, nearly always a particle that can operate independently as a preposition or an adverb, sometimes as both.

The verbs in such mashups tend to be monosyllabic, frequent, polysemous, and Germanic in origin, such as make, take, put, and pick. The motivation for these mashups is nearly always the need to nominalize an underlying phrasal verb: from pick up we get pickup; from break out we get breakout, but we also get outbreak. What rule or instinct of language determines the order of elements in such mashups, such that everyone is sure we would never want to call them upmashes?

Even a person who is slow on the uptake would notice that there's something a bit arbitrary going on. Any attempted breakdown of mashups reveals that for most particles (the rundown of usual suspects includes up, down, in, out, on, and off), compounds exist in which the particle may come first or last. Some particles seem to prefer the second slot, others the first, and there are forms where the same verb couples with the same particle on either end (as with outbreak and breakout) with distinct meanings. Such mashups, without the fallback of a dictionary, might well be the downfall of the English learner, leaving him or her downcast and unable to determine why it is that when the rain seems unstoppable it is a downpour, and not a pourdown.

During that downpour, as you take a timeout in your lean-to, perhaps reflecting that it could use a makeover because of the overflow from said downpour, it might be instructive to reflect on some mashup terms formed from the same particles. Do the particles show a preference for order based on semantics or some other principle? Over is a good place to start if there appears to be no letup in the rain. It does seem to show a semantic difference. When the meaning of over is "beyond, to excess, exceedingly," over seems to prefer the word-initial slot: overreach, overflow, overhang. This meaning of over is surely an extension of the core spatial meaning of the word, and a spatial notion of over is certainly present in overhang, also in overlook (the scenic type), and overview.

Contrast these with other compounds where the meaning of over in the mashup exploits some other more figurative sense of over, like "again" or "so as to reverse position" or, for that matter, any of the dozens of meanings that lexicographers ascribe to over as a preposition or adverb. We have hangover, which seems to exploit over in the sense "so as to remain," and which is not at all the same thing at all as an overhang.

There's also turnover and takeover, whose meanings stretch the original spatial notion of over even further, but most speakers would feel instinctively that these forms are correct for what they mean, and that if we wanted to invoke a more spatial sense for nouns derived from the underlying verb phrases, we would say overturning, not overturn, and overtaking, not overtake. This choice may be due to something akin to linguistic blocking, in which a strongly established form (e.g., the existence of overturn and overtake as verbs) mitigates against the adoption of the same forms for another purpose (e.g., their use as nouns).

Perhaps there is an argument for positing that the particle end of a mashup likes the starting position when it employs some semantic content closely associated with its core meaning. This seems to be the case with over to some degree, and also with up, where many compounds beginning up- do in fact seem to involve some spatial component (uplift, upstroke, upthrust), while compounds ending in –up often have a completive or some other semantic shift of up involved (mashup, breakup, checkup). But of course there are exceptions (layup, pinup, update, upbeat), and anyone who tried to sort mashups semantically along these lines would probably find the upkeep overwhelming.

The next time you visit your bank's drive-through teller, you might consider whether this setup was established to increase the volume of customer throughput, while also wondering why it's not through-drive designed to increase putthrough. There is a paper trail to explain the latter: throughput was modeled on the already existing nouns input and output, and this phenomenon may explain many other mashups as well. Speakers are always more comfortable with a novel word form that shares characteristics with an existing one: it aids both retention an understanding. Given the already-established input and output, a form like putthrough might have constituted a linguistic upset and been regarded immediately as a castoff, a throwaway, while the acceptance throughput was a pushover.

My fellow contributor Nancy Friedman wrote a piece a few years ago that asked the question: "Does 'Reach Out' Overreach?" Many regard the use of the phrasal verb reach out as a language peeve when people use it to mean no more than "contact." Before it came into such frequent usage in this meaning, it would probably have been safe to say that people who were reaching out were engaging in a form of outreach. They could not be faulted for thinking so, for a very common definition of outreach is "an act of reaching out."

But today, perhaps because there seems to be no effective cutoff of people who reach out, a new form has appeared on the horizon: reachout. Does it mean something more than outreach? The OED, so far, is mute on the question, but Google finds hundreds of thousands of hits on this relatively recent compound term. A perusal of what people mean by reachout suggests that in fact the word doesn't mean much more than outreach, but it means it in a new and attention-grabbing way; perhaps in a way that 500-year-old outreach is no longer capable of doing.

The take-home from this runthrough of mashups may be that English has unlimited capacity for innovation in the ongoing buildout of its lexicon. There's no sign of a backoff from speakers who, when the need arises, can wring new meaning from combining the elements in hitherto untried combinations of one of the language's most versatile workers: the humble phrasal verb.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 1st 2014, 1:47 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
What a great column! A shout-out to Orin...
Wednesday October 1st 2014, 7:28 AM
Comment by: Patricia E. (Santiago Chile)
I can only say that Orin's column is so good, but I'll see if I'll be able to take in all that info, and use it correctly as a non native speaker. We do not have Phrasal Verbs in Spanish but we do have some other elements as difficult as those.
Thx Orin!
P. Echard
Wednesday October 1st 2014, 8:58 AM
Comment by: fred S.
Wow, this column belongs in the New Yorker. Very perceptive. Thank you for writing it!
Wednesday October 1st 2014, 11:40 AM
Comment by: roger D.
Thank you Orin;I add another WOW.
Butwhen is a hyphen added and when is a mashup one word?
Friday October 3rd 2014, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
And what to make of the dual meaning of "oversight"? :-)
Saturday October 4th 2014, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
roger D: Hyphenation is not very consistent but a couple of patterns prevail. The hyphen persists if the resulting word without it would suggest a different and wrong pronunciation (like "shutin"). Also, many mashups are introduced with a hyphen that is eventually dropped as the word gains currency. This usually happens faster in American than in British English. Mike P: my crackpot theory is that we do actually distinguish the opposing meanings of 'oversight': the count noun is the negative meaning, the mass noun is the neutral meaning.

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