The last post explained what compounds are, so the aim of this post is to explain the final bit in the project title that requires an explanation: default meanings. A very intuitive idea of what default meanings are is expressed in Jaszczolt (2016). She argues that default meanings are “effortless, automatic interpretations” contrasting with “effortful, inferential ones” (Jaszczolt 2016: 105). In particular, default interpretations are the results of processes below the level of conscious awareness (Jaszczolt 2016: 81). The usefulness of this notion becomes clear when comparing it to the notion of literal meaning. What are literal meanings? The Oxford Dictionary of English gives the following definition of the relevant usage of literal:

II. c. Of, relating to, or designating the primary, original, or etymological sense of a word, or the exact sense expressed by the actual wording of a phrase or passage, as distinguished from any extended sense, metaphorical meaning, or underlying significance.

For many, the difference between literal uses of words and non-literal uses will be familiar from school, where it is almost always taught in connection with metaphoric usages. Thus, if you say to your partner You are the cream in my coffee, the expression cream in my coffee is not used literally but metaphorically. You do not actually want to express that your partner really is cream, but you want to express that they play a role in your life similar to the role of cream in coffee, e.g. as cream adds that final bit that makes coffee taste great, so your partner adds that final bit that makes your life a rewarding experience. Different usages of single words can also be distinguished into literal and metaphorical meanings. Take star. If we look at the Oxford Dictionary of English, we find as its first meaning A celestial object, and related figurative and extended uses. Correspondingly, star in the The night sky was full of stars contains star with its literal, celestial body meaning, and star in Rihanna is one of my daughter’s favourite stars exemplifies the metaphorical usage (sense I. 4. c. in the OED).

Now, the interesting point made by Jaszczolt (2016) is that the literal meaning need not be the default meaning in a given situation. Consider the simple sentence A star has died (Jaszczolt 2016: 59, example (48)). According to Jaszczolt, the default situation for this sentence could be one that refers to the death of a movie star rather than to the death of a star in the astronomical sense (note that this point still holds if the verb to die is exchanged with something more neutral, e.g. We saw a star). Similar points can be made with regard to many other words. Take the names of exotic animals. In the western world, exposure to actual exemplars of lions, tigers, and hippopotamuses is very limited, in actual usage they typically refer to statues, pictures, or drawings of them.

When studying the meaning of word combinations, the issue of default meaning is especially important, because every word in a combination occurs with its own minimal context, the other word in the combination. In many cases, asking for the literal meaning of a combination will not really make much sense. Does stone lion have a literal meaning? No, at least not if this would require us to talk about a real lion. Does it have a default meaning? Yes, because most people interpret the combination as referring to a statue of a lion made out of stone.


Jaszczolt, Kasia M. 2016. Meaning in linguistic interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The quotes and references above come from Chapter 1, Wrong about meaning, and Chapter 2, Interactive composition of meaning. As both chapters contain careful and extensive discussion of the literal meaning debate in semantics and philosophy of language circles, they might at times be difficult to understand without the corresponding background knowledge.

Schäfer, Martin (2018). The semantic transparency of English compound nouns. Berlin: Language Science Press. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1134594
I mention this book here because I already discuss Jaszczolt’s point with regard to the star-example and also include some discussion of the traditional understanding of literal meaning (esp. pages 68-71 on Literality).

Other sources

“literal, adj. and n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 23, 2018).

“star, n.1”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 23, 2018).