A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.
This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.
But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:
Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise,lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not…
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