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The changing meaning of machines

There has been a huge increase in the number of look-ups of the compound noun change machine over the last few weeks. Actually, there isn’t an entry in the Macmillan Dictionary, but maybe there should be.

It’s a machine that gives change (you put in a note, say a dollar bill, and it returns the equivalent amount of money in coins). In the same way that a cash machine gives you cash, or a coffee machine delivers a cup of coffee.

So you might be tempted to think that it’s pretty straightforward. Where X is a commodity of sorts, an X machine is a machine that delivers or provides X. But this is English, so of course there are lots of exceptions: a fruit machine doesn’t provide fruit, and a drum machine doesn’t deliver an actual drum, rather it makes the sound of drums.

When the modifying word is not a commodity, as in slot machine, then we’re talking about the way it operates – in this case you have to put something (usually a coin) into the machine in order to make it work. Or if the modifier is a gerund, like washing or sewing, then it tells you what the machine does.

The relationship between a noun modifier and the noun that follows is not always clear. If English is your first language, then you grow up knowing what these combinations mean. But if English is a second (or third, or fourth…) language, then it can sometimes be tricky analysing these compounds. We’ll do a fuller post on this in a week or two.

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Stephen Bullon


  • Árpád – it’s true that that sentence has no explicit reference to what came before, but I think the context is sufficiently clear for there to be no possibility of misunderstanding. I could have said “There is no entry for ‘change machine’ in the Macmillan Dictionary…” but that would have been needlessly repetitive. To say “there isn’t such an entry…” is possible, but to my ear is very old-fashioned.

  • I was wondering what you call those machines that do the reverse, that is, give you notes in exchange for your coins. Apparently they are change machines too. (My initial thought on seeing this was that it referred to a machine that brings about change, such as the internal combustion engine or the computer. Duh, as they say)

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