In a Word: Fantabulous Portmanteau Words

A brief overview of our long tradition of smashing words together for fun.

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In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, young Alice chats with Humpty Dumpty, who boasts that he can “explain all the poems that were ever invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” To challenge him, Alice recites the first stanza of the poem “The Jabberwocky”:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

In his explication, Humpty Dumpty explains that slithy means “lithe and slimy.”

“You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up in one word.”

To readers of the time, a portmanteau was a piece of luggage that opened into two equal-sized compartments. The word comes from the French porter “to carry” + manteau “cloak or mantle.” But since Through the Looking-Glass was published, a portmanteau word has been one whose spelling and meaning are derived from the blending of two other words. (Lexicographers call such words blends.)

Smashing together two existing words can be a fun way to coin new ones, like Friendsgiving (friends + Thanksgiving), Galentine’s Day (gal + Valentine’s Day), and Obamacare (Obama + healthcare). But the process has given us a number of fairly common words as well. Brunch (breakfast + lunch) and smog (smoke + fog) are probably the most often cited common portmanteau words, but there are many others out there that you might not even recognize as such blended formations. For example:

  • malware = malicious + software
  • motel = motor + hotel
  • motorcycle = motor + bicycle
  • Muppet = marionette + puppet
  • podcast = iPod + broadcast
  • slosh = slop + splash
  • transceiver = transmitter + receiver

Gerrymander is a blend, too, that predates Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty speech by 60 years. When Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry and his party redrew the commonwealth’s districts in 1812 in such a way as to suppress the Federalist vote, someone noted that the outline of the new districts resembled a salamander. That salamander became the gerrymander.

I wouldn’t care to guesstimate how many portmanteau words are out there, but I’m sure it’s a ginormous number. They won’t all be useful, but coining such blends can be a fun form of edutainment  — just don’t get flustrated if they don’t come easily at first.

And don’t overdo it, either. You wouldn’t want to trigger a portmantocalypse.

Featured image: Scene from Through the Looking-Glass. Illustrated by John Tenniel.

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Comments

  1. Wow. Now I REALLY believe Lewis Carroll had ingested some kind of mushroom for sure, and likely more than a little opium from the hits on his hookah. Great attempt at a save on that first stanza Alice recites above, but it’s… it’s… it’s GIBBERISH!

    This doesn’t mean for a second I don’t love Carroll and his brilliant writings of Alice, Humpty Dumpty and all the other cast of characters in his wonderful stories. By the way, isn’t Humpty Dumpty as pictured above fantastic?? Of course he is! Kind of a 19th century hybrid-forerunner of a Nowhere Man and the Eggman before you-know-who thought them up!

    I love the words portmanteau and gerrymander even though I’ll never use them. Some of these words I forgot were “smash-ins” (my made up word) like motorcycle, motel, malware and Muppet! Your column this week is fantabulous Andy. I’ll only get flustrated if I can’t get an online fix of Lewis Carroll’s world this weekend, after a week that’s frankly been a -itch!

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