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Why isn’t it ‘teethpaste’?

June 20, 2017

I’ve just read an interesting item on the Merriam-Webster website, which was retweeted by Stephen Pinker: why do we say toothpaste, rather than teethpaste? After all, you use the stuff to clean all of your teeth, not just one of them.

But while teethpaste might be logical, it would not be English. For it turns out – and once this is pointed out you realise you kind of knew it all along – that there is a rule that whenever a compound word includes a body part, that body part is always singular. Thus we say legwarmers, not legswarmers, and shinpads rather than shinspads. This rule holds not just for nouns but adjectives too (rib-tickling, not ribs-tickling, ear-splitting rather than ears-splitting).

So we’ve all learned something there, I think, even though at an unconscious level we already knew it.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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5 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Does balls ache count?

  2. Spiritman permalink

    This is one of my hot topics in the English language and I’ve written about it on Quora.com quite a few times (in relation to “type of X” clauses, as it happens).

    In my mind, it has nothing to do with their being body parts. The first noun in a compound is singular because it is merely the class of object that is qualifying the main noun. So:

    “I’ve got a brush.”
    “What kind of brush?”
    “A toothbrush.”

    Only the brush is a real object being indicated by the compound word. There needn’t be a tooth in sight.

    ‘Tooth’ merely serves to qualify the noun ‘brush’. With English often tending to be a concise language that likes to say no more than is necessary, you only need ‘tooth’.

    There’s also bookcase, horsebox, keyboard, footstool, and so on.

  3. Yes, you are absolutely right – it’s not just body-parts. ‘Shoe shop’ etc. As you say it’s to do with the class of the qualifying object, whatever it is, which would naturally be singular, as in dictionary definitions. Well spotted.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    How about legs eleven?

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