Finnish for busy people

Reversible Compound Words – Finnish vocabulary

Reversible compound words do an interesting switcheroo that influences their meaning. I’m not sure if this phenomenon has an official name. What I’m referring to is words such as riisipuuro and puuroriisi.

An yhdyssana (compound word) is a word that consists of two (or more) words glued to one another. In Finnish, compound words are often consistently written as one word. In contrast, English has open (e.g. father figure), closed (e.g. grandfather), or hyphenated compound words (e.g. father-in-law). Some terms can have all three of these options as valid alternatives: for instance, lifestylelife–style, and life style.

In Finnish, the latter part of the word is the base word (grammatical sources may refer to this as the “head” – edusosa), while the first part specifies or limits the meaning of the latter unit (grammatically this part is usually called the “modifier” – määriteosa).

This topic is worthy of an article because, as far as I can tell, not every language follows this pattern. I’ve noticed that a large portion of Arabic students over the years have been putting the modifier behind the base word. For some words, this changes the whole meaning of the word.

List of reversible compound words

The following list of compound words is very loosely organized by how abstract/difficult these word pairs are.

Finnish English
riisipuuro rice porridge: porridge made from rice
puuroriisi porridge rice: rice used to make porridge
korttipeli card game: a game which uses cards
pelikortti playing card: a card used in a game
vesihana water tap: a tap from which water comes
hanavesi tap water: water that comes from a tap
kirjatentti book exam: an exam based on a book
tenttikirja exam book: a book to read for exam
lihapata meat stew: a stew containing meat
pataliha stew meat: meat used in stew
perheystävä family friend: a friend of the family
ystäväperhe another family that’s friends with yours
tankotanssi pole dancing: a dance using a pole
tanssitanko dancing pole: a pole used in pole dance
pussitee bag tea: tea made from a tea bag
teepussi tea bag: a bag containing a tea portion
häkkilintu cage bird: a bird which is kept in a cage
lintuhäkki bird cage: a cage for holding a bird
purkkiruoka canned food: food from a can
ruokapurkki food can: a can containing food
koirarotu dog breed: a breed of dogs
rotukoira purebred dog: a dog that is a certain breed
hiekkaranta sandy beach: a beach with sand on it
rantahiekka beach sand: sand found on the beach
päivälepo siesta, afternoon nap: rest taken during the day
lepopäivä rest day: a day used to rest
työmaa worksite: a site where construction is happening
maatyö farm work: work done on a farm (often maatyöt)
tuotemerkki brand name: a brand of a product line
merkkituote name brand: a product of a certain brand name
palkkapäivä pay day: the day you get paid
päiväpalkka daily pay: the pay for one workday
silmälasit eyeglasses: glasses to see better
lasisilmä glass eye: an eye made of glass
myymäläauto mobileshop: a vehicle functioning as a store
automyymälä car dealership: a store specialized in selling cars
vuorotyö shift work: a job where you work shifts
työvuoro shift: a shift in a job with shifts
pullomaito bottled milk: milk that is stored in a bottle
maitopullo milk bottle: a bottle which contains milk
lisäaika grace, overtime: time that’s added, e.g. in sports
aikalisä time-out: additional time, minute to e.g. regroup
pyöräretki bike ride: a trip made using a bike
retkipyörä trekking bike: a bike which is used for trekking
kuorma-auto truck, lorry: a vehicle which carries cargo
autokuorma cargo, carload: cargo carried by a vehicle
vesilasku water bill: a bill for water consumption
laskuvesi low tide: the water when the sea level is low
kirjakauppa bookstore: a store with books
kauppakirja bill of sale: a written proof of sale
juhlavuosi jubilee: a special year of celebration, e.g. 20 years
vuosijuhla anniversary: a celebration which happens annually
laivalippu ship ticket: a ticket granting passage on a ship
lippulaiva flagship: a ship occupied by the fleet’s commander
sarjakuva comic: an image consisting of sequential pictures
kuvasarja slideshow: a sequence of images/pictures
lehtikuva magazine photo: a picture in a magazine
kuvalehti magazine: a magazine containing pictures
pintamaali topcoat: paint on the top-most surface
maalipinta paint surface: a surface which is painted
sairaala-alue hospital grounds: the area a hospital is built on
aluesairaala regional hospital: the hospital of an area
huonekasvi houseplant: a plant suited to be kept inside
kasvihuone greenhouse: a building meant for plants to grow
ovipeili door mirror: a mirror which is embedded in the surface of a door
peiliovi mirrored door: a door which has a mirror embedded into it
ruukkukukka potted plant: a flower/plant which is meant to be grown in a pot
kukkaruukku flowerpot: a pot in which plants are grown
matkailuauto camper, motor home: a recreational car meant for travel
automatkailu car tourism: travel type where a car is used as means of transportation
lomakoti holiday home: a home where you spend your vacation
kotiloma furlough: a vacation spent at home
katukauppa street trading: trade happening in the streets, or a physical place there
kauppakatu shopping street: a street with shops on either side
kokoelmalevy compilation album: a record with compiled contents
levykokoelma record collection: a collection of records
liimapaperi adhesive paper: paper with an adhesive surface
paperiliima paper glue: glue meant to be used to glue paper
liimapuu glued laminated timber: timber held together with glue
puuliima wood glue: glue meant for wooden surfaces
hoitolaitos home: a facility that takes care of people
laitoshoito institutional care: the care given in certain facilities
kotihoito home care: health care provided in a patient’s home
hoitokoti nursing home: a home that provides care to its residents
kouluauto driving school vehicle: a car used in a driving school
autokoulu driving school: a school where people learn to drive
miesvoima manpower: the power exerted by a single person
voimamies strongman: a person who performs feats of strength
vesisade rain: rain in the form of water (ie. not snow or hail)
sadevesi rainwater: water sourced from rain
koulutyttö schoolgirl: a girl attending school
tyttökoulu girls’ school: a school for girls
viinilaatikko wine box: a box containing wine
laatikkoviini box wine: wine which is sealed inside a plastic bag inside a box
maastopyöräily mountain biking: the hobby of biking in uneven terrains
pyöräilymaasto cycling terrain: a terrain suited for biking
määräraha budget, appropriation: money set aside for a specific purpose
rahamäärä sum: an amount of money
miesviha misandry: hatred of or prejudice against men
vihamies enemy: a person who is hated by someone, who is someone’s enemy
lasivitriini glass display case: a showcase with a glass door
vitriinilasi showcase glass: glass used in display cases
eläinhäkki animal cage: a cage used to keep an animal in
häkkieläin caged animal: an animal kept in a cage
tulvavesi flood waters: water which floods an area
vesitulva water flood: a flood consisting of water
poutapilvi cumulus cloud: a cloud which won’t produce rain
pilvipouta dry cloudy weather: rainless weather with some clouds
jalkapuu stocks: a wooden, medieval restraint and punishment device
puujalka pegleg: a leg made of wood
tukijalka outrigger: a leg providing support to a construction
jalkatuki footrest: footstool, a support piece for your legs
korttiluotto credit: credit on a credit card
luottokortti credit card: a card connected to a credit account
mainosvalo neon light: light which comes from a neon sign
valomainos neon sign: an advertisement lit up with neon light
pukujuhla costume party: a party to which a costume must be worn
juhlapuku evening dress: a suit/dress/clothes worn of formal occasions
matkatyö traveling work: work which requires traveling around
työmatka commute: a travel route to work (also: business trip)
numeropalvelu directory service: a service with a phone number you can call
palvelunumero hotline: a phone number you can call to get a certain service
valomerkki light signal: a signal given with light, e.g. to another car
merkkivalo pilot light: a light that gives a signal, e.g. “on” light on an iron
rahapeli game of chance: a game where you use money to bet
peliraha pretend money: money for a game, e.g. monopoly
vuosiluku date: the number of a year, e.g. 2010 is a vuosiluku
lukuvuosi school year: a year which you use to study
järjestysluku ordinal number: a number signifying order, e.g. fourth, fifth
lukujärjestys timetable: an organization tool displaying school hours
naapuripöytä neighboring table: a table close to your own
pöytänaapuri tablemate: the person sitting next to you at a table
kuvakieli figurative language: language which is used figuratively
kielikuva figure of speech: a metaphor, word or phrase used figuratively
piirileikki circle game: a game where kids move in a circle while holding hands
leikkipiiri playgroup: a group of children gathered to play
pula-aika economic crisis: a time with a lack of something
aikapula time crunch: a lack of time, e.g. at work
pinta-ala surface area: the size of an area
alapinta soffit: the surface of the underside of something
palstaviljely allotment farming: farming done on a (rented) plot
viljelypalsta allotment: a plot of land meant to grow plants on (often rented)
korkeusennätys altitude record: the current standing record of height
ennätyskorkeus record height: a height which breaks the record
avaruusaika space age: historical time period started with the launch of the Sputnik
aika-avaruus spacetime: a space with four dimensions (including time)
pääsyy primary reason: the reason which is the most significant
syypää culprit: the person at fault, the guilty person
murhamies murderer: a male murderer
miesmurha man murder: a murder which targets a male person
elinsiirto organ transplant: the transfer of an organ
siirtoelin transplant organ: an organ which is transplanted into a new body
työryhmä workgroup, committee: a group of people working on something
ryhmätyö group work: work done with several people in a group
koeajo test run: a run during which a e.g. vehicle is tested
ajokoe driving test: a test required to acquire a driver’s license
lääkeresepti drug prescription: a prescription for medication
reseptilääke prescription drug: a medicine which must be prescribed to acquire

Did you know about the concept of reversible compound words already? I hope you found some compound words or pairs you want to study in this list!

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

A very interesting topic! I noticed this phenomenon of reversible compound words but didn’t really know a name for it. Aika-avaruus is an interesting word as it is actually in the reverse order than in English (spacetime), German (Raumzeit) or Swedish (rumtid) but in the same order as for instance in Polish (czasoprzestrzeń). I guess it’s so because spacetime is not just space or just time but two of those things combined together.

Also, according to Wikipedia leipäjuusto can also be called juustoleipä, which would make it also a reversible compound word though the meaning is the same.

By the way, are you familiar with the word tutkijatohtori? It’s used only in academic environment and its meaning is equivalent to postdoctoral researcher. Sometimes I get it wrong and say tohtoritutkija. Somehow it sounds more natural to me, maybe because it corresponds more to the English term. On the other hand, Google search for tohtoritutkija gives some results so maybe it is just less common? I guess it depends if one thinks about it as a researcher who has a PhD degree (tohtoritutkija) or a person with PhD who conducts research (tutkijatohtori).


when I found this article I was like “let me search for the one pair I think I know” and it wasn’t there 😂
I guess maybe because it’s not a pure switch, as an “n” (genitive n?) sneaks in to one of them and some kpt nonsense happens 😉. so maybe only deserves an honorable mention?

viikonloppu: weekend (Sat/Sun
loppuviikko: end of the week (Thu/Fri timeframe?)

Inge (admin)

Yes, there are several reversible compound words like these where one of the two has the genitive’s -n- in the middle. I haven’t included them, but it is indeed a thing that occurs!

The honorable mention will forever be yours here in the comments for people to find! 🙂