On a recent episode of The Sid Rosenberg Show, a sports talk radio program on WMEN in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor called former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason—with whom he’s had a longstanding feud—a “dickhead.” Which raises the question: Did L.T. imply that Boomer was someone whose entire being consists of the head of a dick OR someone who has a dick for a head? (Yes, these are the sorts of things that linguists care about.)
If dickhead the insult means “head of a dick,” then it’s an example of an endocentric compound noun—that is, a noun made up of words X and Y, where Y is a noun and XY denotes a kind of Y. Y is said to be, no pun intended, the head of the compound. For example, in doghouse, X = dog, Y = house, and a doghouse is a kind of house. Similarly, in dickhead, X = dick, Y = head, and a dickhead is a kind of head, more specifically the kind you find at the end of a dick (the end without a man attached, that is). By way of comparison, another common insult that is an endocentric compound noun is asshole. Literally, an asshole is a kind of hole. Nonliterally, an asshole is someone offensive and obstinate enough to be compared to an anal sphincter.
On the other hand, if dickhead the insult means “having a dick for a head,” it’s an example of an exocentric, or headless, compound noun. In this kind of compound, it is not true that X is a kind of Y (or, for that matter, that Y is a kind of X). In other words, neither X nor Y is the head of the compound. So if dickhead means “having a dick for a head,” then a dickhead is not a kind of head. It’s a kind of person. Are there other insults that are exocentric compound nouns? Well, butthead comes to mind. And since butts, unlike dicks, don’t have heads, there’s no ambiguity. A butthead is irrefutably not a kind of head. It’s a person who presumably—and, of course, figuratively—has a butt for a head.
Since both readings of dickhead have precedents, it’s hard to say which kind of compound it in fact is. A Google image search yields hundreds of hits for the word, many of them photos of actual people who are evidently dickheads in someone’s opinion. But 10 or 15 of them were more illuminating. For the endocentric reading (parallel to asshole), I found no images at all. For the exocentric meaning (parallel to butthead), I found six images of people whose heads consisted of a penis or penises.
Interestingly, the remaining images suggested a meaning for dickhead that hadn’t even occurred to me. A bunch of them were pictures of people with penises on top of their heads. Hmm. So is that endocentric or exocentric? Sure, it’s true that dickhead as an endocentric compound doesn’t necessarily mean “head of a dick”; it may arguably denote a head with a dick, and a head with a dick on top would certainly qualify. After all, if you want to talk about someone standing over there with a dick on his head, what other word would you use? And it turns out there’s precedent for this meaning, too. Google image searches for shithead and meathead return more pictures of heads with shit or meat on them than of heads consisting of shit or meat (and of course there are cheeseheads).
That said, I’m calling this exocentric, since these dickheads are still a kind of person, not a kind of head. To capture both exocentric meanings—someone who has a dick for a head and someone who has a dick on their head—we have to think of the exocentric compound as having a more general meaning: “someone whose head has something or other to do with a dick,” whether by being one or possessing one.
To sum up, dickheads are more like buttheads than assholes, and there are more kinds of dickheads than you’d probably care to imagine.
A version of this post originally appeared on Literal-Minded.