When Two Words Become One

The economy and wit of portmanteaus

On my way to brunch last Sunday, I saw a cockapoo and had to chortle. Not at the dog, but at the word: cockapoo?

It’s a portmanteau, a word that blends parts of two or more words to create a new one. Did you catch the three portmanteaus in my first paragraph? Cockapoo combines cocker spaniel and poodle. Brunch is a mash-up of breakfast and lunch. Chortle mixes chuckle and snort.

Portmanteau is the French word for a large traveling case that opens into two equal compartments. The word derives from porter (to carry) + manteau (cloak). Lewis Carroll coined portmanteau as a linguistic term to describe the blended words he created in Through The Looking Glass. These words have "two meanings packed up into one word." Examples include slithy (slimy + lithe), galumph (gallop + triumph), and mimsy (miserable + flimsy).

If Carroll is the father of portmanteaus, James Joyce is the master. His novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are filled with them – saddenly (sad + suddenly), shim (she + him), individuone (individual + one), pornosophical (pornographic + philosophical)…

Portmanteaus are inventive and useful. They allow us to describe our world with accuracy, economy, and wit:

> advertorial (advertising + editorial)

> blog (web + log)

> Bridezilla (bride + Godzilla)

> Chunnel (channel + tunnel)

> guesstimate (guess + estimate)

> pixel (picture + element)

> slurve (slider + curve)

> smog (smoke + fog)

At the Walsh house, we have our favorite portmanteaus. Bromance (brothers + romance) describes the affection that our sons, Peter and Evan, have for one another. Vork (veal + pork) is what I often serve for dinner on Sundays – cutlets that look like veal but are actually made from pounded pork medallions. Guydea (guy + idea) indicates the thinking of a man who decides to take on an ambitious do-it-yourself project at the most inopportune time, i.e., rewiring the dining room chandelier hours before guests arrive on Thanksgiving Day.

My wife, Deb, gets the credit for guydea, though I don’t know where her inspiration came from. I’m a reluctant DIY-er at best, and avoid re-wiring at all costs.

Especially after that Thanksgiving.

Do you have a favorite portmanteau? One you invented? Please share in the comments below.

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John Walsh April 03, 2012 at 01:06 PM
Hey Andrew: Put-down portmanteaus for professional teams are great, i.e., Dead Sox, Skankees, Lastros, etc. Glad to hear you are reading "Portrait" – let me know what you think. Then you will be ready for the portmanteau playground that is "Ulysses"!
John Walsh April 03, 2012 at 01:07 PM
Will never look at "studying" the same way again. Thanks for reading!
John Walsh April 03, 2012 at 01:09 PM
A classic. Thanks for adding it to the mix.
Tom O'Connell April 06, 2012 at 12:34 AM
Enjoyed the post. An older example is gerrymandering, from our Massachusetts neighbors to the north, and with respects to political redistricting. As we just saw with the recent RI-1 redistricting, gerrymandering may still be relevant.
John Walsh April 06, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom. Gerrymandering is a great word with a colorful history.


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