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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