Meaning of Compound Nouns

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126. The general rule is that the prefixed stem limits or qualifies the meaning of the other.

  • ὠμο-γέρων
    hale old man
  • δημο-γέρων
    elder of the people
  • τρι-γέρων (Aesch.)
    thrice aged
  • ἱππό-δαμο-ς
    tamer of horses
  • ἱππό-βοτο-ς
    pastured by horses
  • ἱππό-κομος
    with plume of horsehair
  • ἱππο-κέλευθος
    making way with horses
  • βαθυ-δινήεις

The prefixed stem may evidently express very different relations, that of

An adjective, as ὠμο-γέρων, βαθυ-δίνης

A genitive, as δημο-γέρων, ἱππό-κομος

An object, as ἱππό-δαμος

An adverb of manner or place or instrument, as ὁμ-ηγερέες, ἠερο-φοῖτις, etc.

and various attempts have been made to classify compounds according to these relations. Such attempts are usually unsatisfactory unless the differences of meaning upon which they are based are accompanied by differences of grammatical fοrm.

In respect of form an important distinction is made by the fact that in the second part of many compounds a substantive acquires the meaning of an adjective without the use of a new suffix; e.g. ῥοδο-δάκτυλο-ς, literally rose-finger, means not a rosy finger, but having rosy fingers; so

with a horse-plume

with horse's mane (as a plume)

βαθυ-δίνη-ς (= βαθυ-δινή-εις), etc.

Such compounds are called by Curtius attributive. The formation is analogous to the turning of abstract into concrete nouns by a mere change of gender (instead of a suffix), § 116. Thus διο-γενής (= δῖον γένος ἔχων) is to δῖον γένος as ψευδής false to ψεῦδος falsehοοd.

Among the meanings which may be conveyed by a stem in a compound, note the poetical use to express comparison.

storm-fοοt, i.e. with feet (swift) as the storm


ῥοδο-δάκτυλο-ς, κυν-ῶπι-ς, etc. So too ποδ-ήνεμο-ς like the wind in feet, θυμο-λέων like a liοn in spirit.

The order of the two stems may be almost indifferent, that is it may be indifferent which of the two notions is treated as qualifying the other; e. g. ποδ-ώκης swift of foot (= ὠκὺς τοὺς πόδας) is the same in practical effect as ὠκύ-πους swift-fοοt, with swift feet (ὠκεῖς πόδας ἔχων).

In the compounds called by Curtius objective, i.e. where the relation between the two parts is that of governing and governed word, the general rule requires that the governed word should come first, as in ἱππό-δαμο-ς horse-taming. This order appears to be reversed in certain cases in which the first stem has the force of a verb. The stems so used are

  1. Stems in -ε (§ 124.d, as ἑλκε-χίτωνες, ἐχέ-φρων, etc.
  2. Stems in -σι (§ 124.c), as ἑλκε-σί-πεπλος, φθι-σ-ήνωρ, etc.
  3. Some of the stems in -ι, as


    • εἰλί-ποδες
    • κυδι-άνειρα
    • ἁμαρτί-νοος (Hes.)
    • λαθι-κηδής
    • λαθί-φρων
    • τερπι-κέραυνος (§ 124.b)

    and in -ο, as

    • φιλο-πτόλεμμος
      loving war
    • φιλο-κέρτομος
    • φιλο-κτέανος
    • φυγο-πτόλεμος
      flying from war
    • ἁμαρτο-επής
      blundering in speech
    • ἠλιτόμηνος
      astray as to the month

    also the compounds of ταλα-, τλη-, as ταλα-πενθής enduring sorrow, Τλη-πόλεμος, etc., and τανυ-, as τανύ-πτερος (Hes.), which is the equivalent to the Homeric τανυσί-πτερος.

In most of these cases the inversion is only apparent. For instance, ἑλκεσί-πεπλος means trailing the robe as distinguished from other ways of wearing it; the notion of trailing is therefore the limiting one. So τανυσί-πτερος means long-winged; μενε-πτόλεμος, φυγο-πτόλεμος, Τλη-πόλεμος, Nεο-πτόλεμος describe varieties of the genus "warrior."

Nevertheless we must recognise a considerable number of compounds in which the prefixed stem is verbal in form as well as in meaning. A similar group has been formed in English (e. g. catchpenny, makeshift, dο-nothing, etc., and in the Romance languages (French ναu-rien, croque-mitaine, Italian fa-tuttο, etc.). These groups are of relatively late formation, and confined for the most part to colloquial language. The corresponding Greek forms represent a new departure of the same kind.

The process by which the second part of a compound passes into a suffix cannot often be traced in Greek. An example may be found in -απο-ς (ποδ-απός, ἡμεδ-απός, ἀλλοδ-απός), = Sanskrit -añc, Latin -inquu-s (lοng-inquus, prop-inquus). In the adjectives in -οψ, as οἶνοψ, αἶθοψ, ἦνοψ, νῶροψ, μέροψ, the original sense of the stem -οπ is evidently very faint. In the proper names Αἰθίοπες, Δόλοπες, Ἕλλοπες, Πέλοψ, etc., it becomes a mere suffix.

Suggested Citation

D.B. Monro, A Grammar of the Homeric Dialect. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-947822-04-7.