I've come across this beautiful description in the song a character sings in the book 1 of TLOR, 'the forge's fire is ashen cold'. I immediately grasped its meaning, but I got curious about that kind of collocation made of two adjectives like that. It doesn't feel like those descriptions where the two or more adjectives are separated by a comma, such as 'it was a musty, lingering smell' attributively or 'the mountain peak was icy, unyielding' predicatively. It feels more like ashen is modifying cold but it's not an adverb, and it works, despite my being unaware of the grammar going on there. It sounds more beautiful to me than 'ash cold' just like 'fiery hot' might to someone than 'fire hot'. I'd like to know more about that kind of collocation and how it works.

  • I think the distinction between adjectives and adverbs (and even nouns!) is maybe not as strict as we sometimes make it sound. For example, something could be red hot or ice cold or salmon pink or steaming mad.
    – stangdon
    Jun 20, 2023 at 14:38
  • Most likely Tolkien's specific collocation ashen-cold had never been used before. But syntactically it's no different to, say, icy[-]cold = ice-cold. And poetically we can probably identify allusions to ashen = old and grey, as well as the fact that ashes are the remains of a "cold, dead" fire. Jun 20, 2023 at 14:39
  • "ashen" in literary contexts can often mean "resembling ashes". "Ashen-cold" means "cold like ash". It's simply a compound adjective, similar to "icy-cold", "red-hot", "soaking-wet", "half-seen", "wild-eyed", "fast-paced", "quick-witted", I notice that you missed out the hyphen in your quote. This is an important detail because this should be your first clue that you are in fact dealing with a compound adjective.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 20, 2023 at 15:45

1 Answer 1


Sometimes adjectives are used to modify other adjectives, particularly in dialect, and in poetry. (I think it's a matter of taste whether you say they are "adverbs" when used in that way). Think of dialect expressions like "powerful strong" - but, in more general use, "frozen solid".

  • 1
    from the looks of it, it doesn't seem like a collocation used very liberally. like, it works beautifully in that description, and clearly he used it because it sounds so good, but just automatically extending that to other situations/states/adjectives is yielding a ton of weird/clunky sounding stuff. Jun 20, 2023 at 14:51

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