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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: . 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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  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 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?

  5. Mark Brafield permalink

    I am not sure if this quite on the topic, but as it relates to plurals and singulars, it is not unrelated. Anyway, it is a good story and this is as good a place as any to recall it. I once met someone incredibly posh at university and was particularly impressed when he told me that his tailor had made him ‘a superb trouser’. I have always wanted to refer to ‘my trouser’ ever since, but either never had the courage, or just felt I would look and sound like a prat.

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    I saw several signs in Calcutta (as it was at the time) advertising a tailors who were “renowned for their superb trouserings, shirtings and suitings” which I’ve always wanted to use.
    Apparently trousers were originally two piece garments and the plural usage has continued. This is also why they were called breeches (or britches).
    The singular trouser sounds very Wodehousian; maybe because Jeeves was often advised to “trouser the proceeds”.

  7. Sorry, I’m late getting to this. Yes, I agree, Mark, that the expression ‘a superb trouser’ is appealing, but I wouldn’t dare say it (except facetiously). When I read your comment I immediately thought, as Simon points out, that it was just the sort of thing Jeeves might say. I don’t think he ever actually does say it, but there is a story in which he advises Wooster to hitch his trousers up by half an inch, because, he says ‘one aims at the classic break’ – ie perfect meeting of trousers and shoes – an expression I’ve always enjoyed.

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