All Aboard for Quasi-Productive Stemming


One of the words Becky and I are having annotated for word sense (collecting 25 non-spam Mechanical Turk responses per word) is the nominal (noun) use of “board”.

One of the examples was drawn from a text with a typo where “aboard” was broken into two words, “a board”. I looked at the example, and being a huge fan of nautical fiction, said “board is very productive — we should have the nautical sense”. Then I thought a bit longer and had to admit I didn’t know what “board” meant all by itself. I did know a whole bunch of terms that involved “board” as a stem:

  • inboard
  • outboard
  • aboard, onboard
  • overboard, “by the board”
  • larboard (port)
  • weatherboard (facing the weather [wind])
  • starboard
  • above board (on deck)

And what about “seaboard”? As in the “Eastern seaboard”.

The nautical meaning wasn’t listed in WordNet, but has an entry for board that lists it as one of two nautical senses. Words have a surprising number of meanings if you’re willing to go into low frequency, archaic/obsolete and domain-specific usages.

The nautical sense in play is “side of a ship”. It also lists an obsolete sense meaning edge or side of anything. So the nautical sense is just a specialization of this obsolete sense. That’s one way in which meaning drift occurs.

This is all consistent with “side”, cf., “inside”/”inboard”, “outside”/”outboard”, and “aside”/”aboard”. The “side” in question here seems to have drifted to something like “side of an enclosed structure”

This is the same problem we had with our morphological annotation project at LingPipe — there were words that seemed to be compounds, but one of the roots didn’t really stand alone in (common, everyday) English.

2 Responses to “All Aboard for Quasi-Productive Stemming”

  1. Mark Johnson Says:

    Nice examples! Do you think this is related to the “cranberry” morphemes I used to teach about in Intro Lx courses? (In “cranberry”, it’s clear what the “berry” is, but what’s the “cran”?)

    • Bob Carpenter Says:

      The classic linguistic textbook case of “cranberry” seems like the same issue. According to the Collins Dictionary, cited in the entry for “cranberry”, the etymology of the “cran” in “cranberry” is German “kraan” (English “crane”). But “kraan”, even in the form “cran”, was never productive until the American company Ocean Spray introduced “cran-apple” and continued with “cran-raspberry”, etc.

      Another related case is the one I dealt with in an old blog post,
      To Stem or not to Stem?, where I listed about 50 words derived from “author”, some of which, like “authoritarian”, don’t seem very closely related to “author” any more.

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