What is a portmanteau?
A portmanteau is when the first and last part of two different words are smushed together to create a new word with its own meaning. Like smash + mushed = smushed. This is a nice little explanatory video from Oxford Dictionaries.
It is also the name of a big suitcase that has two equally sized halves.
The word ‘portmanteau’ is even a portmanteau itself! The suitcase definition comes from 16th century France; ‘porte’ meaning ‘carry’ and ‘manteau’ meaning ‘cloak’ becomes ‘portmanteau’. For me, this is its own little bit of joy as I am very fond of the world of accessories. These look amazing! Mind you, trying to get one into a train luggage rack nowadays would make you a very unpopular traveller!
Portmanteaus are not the same as compound words because they use parts of words. Compound words join two complete words together to make a new word, like website, housemate and schoolgirl.
Lewis Carroll gets credit for first using portmanteaus in ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. During her conversation with Humpty Dumpty, Alice learns that “slithy” means “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” means “miserable and flimsy”. I think we’ve all come across those people.
Extreme feelings provoked!
I have very strong feelings about particular portmanteaus; some positive, some negative. It surprised me to learn this about myself and once I started thinking about it I realised that I have extreme views about most portmanteaus.
If they are usefully naming a new thing or concept, I remain neutral. Words like: internet (international + network), malware (malicious + software) and emoticon (emotion + icon). I have no strong feelings either way, they are just handy labels.
But other portmanteaus either infuriate me or delight me to the extreme. How do you feel about them?
Let’s start with the negative, in no particular order and with as much reasoning as I can muster. Fair warning: there may be a couple of sweary words in here.
5 Portmanteaus I hate:
- Cockapoo (cocker spaniel + poodle): it’s got the word ‘poo’ and ‘cock’ in it…really? For such an adorable animal?
- Chillax (chill + relax): this makes me instantly feel violent towards the person saying it. Telling people to relax is a sure fire way of making them even more tense anyway – adding a ridiculous word to make yourself look cool could easily push them over the edge. (Or maybe that’s just me?)
- Brangelina (Brad and Angelina): Or any such joining of couples’ names. To me it feeds into the ‘Two Become One’ nonsense that we could all do without! (Sorry Spice Girls, you know it’s true.)
- Guestimate (Guess + estimate): Putting forward an ‘estimate’ without any facts, figures, rationale or solid evidence of any kind. So…a guess then?! There’s just no point. It’s not a thing.
- Brexit (Britain, or British, + exit): My least favourite word of all time (so far). To borrow from Baloo, “Let me elucidate here…”. I love language because you can determine specific meaning. With a simple decoder – dictionary – you can work out the meaning of most texts. (I never really got to grips with James Joyce, that’s why I’m saying ‘most’.) Each word has its own meaning that can be understood in its own right. ‘Brexit’ still doesn’t have its own definition beyond ‘leaving the European Union’. It feels like the word was made up to give the illusion of a collective meaning that people could support. It feels like a con, not just the politics, the word itself. It is the absence of something, (EU membership), not an actual determinable alternative. The meaning of ‘brexit’ is totally dependent on who you are talking to. THAT’S NOT HOW WORDS WORK!!! There’s a thing that needs a label, we invent a noun that everybody uses to talk about the thing. Here we have a label for a void, a ‘not that’ non-thing which, I guess, is supposed to make it feel more thing-ish. It doesn’t.
6 Portmanteaus I love!
- Labradoodle (Labrador + poodle): its got ‘doodle’ in it!
- Administrivia (administrative + trivia): how much of this is in your life? This is a great word to use when feeling overwhelmed by an abundance of admin tasks, the ‘trivia’ element decidedly lowers the stakes.
- Chortle (chortle + snort): I just love it when people chortle!
- Fuckwit (fucking + witless): Extreme stupidity deserves its own term and I use this often (regularly to myself!) I also enjoy ‘fuckwittage’, as introduced to me by the marvellous Bridget Jones.
- Chocoholic (chocolate + alcoholic): I am a chocoholic and I wish I wanted to do something about it, but I don’t. I like that this word exists because it means I am not the only one!
- Brunch (breakfast + lunch): There is nothing not to love about brunch! All breakfast foods are amazing – sweet, savoury, hot, cold – a massive array of options and they all come with coffee. Adding in the ‘lunch’ element gets rid of the one thing I hate about breakfast – the expectation that it is eaten in the morning, often at a very uncivilised hour. With brunch there is no such pressure. A good friend recently revealed to me that a fabulous extension to this also exists – ‘brinner’, that’s breakfast + dinner, breakfast for dinner! Now this is a treat meal that I have made on occasion for years, but I had no idea that it actually had a name! I did once eat three (different) breakfast food meals in one day; breakfast, brunch and brinner – a proud moment.
Why the extreme reaction?
I’m not sure why I have such extreme reactions to most portmanteaus. Maybe it’s because they are brand new words, so I feel like I have to judge them instead of just using them.
Finding out the definition of a new portmanteau means that I am looking at it more closely as a word. I stopped doing this with all the other words after I internalised them into my own vocabulary. Well, unless I’m writing something and I just can’t quite find the one I want. Then I hate all the words for a few minutes!
I guess once you’ve learned something new, you then choose whether or not to use it. Is it useful? Is it necessary? Do you just love it, or hate it, on sight? Is it a case of ‘finally, there’s a word for that’ (like mansplaining)? Isn’t it just amazing that our language continues to evolve right alongside us?
If you feel like sharing your portmanteau passions, do leave a comment. Helps me feel like I’m not a lone word nerd!
I leave you with ‘spork’ because I thought the person who first described this to me was taking the mick, but it is actually a thing. Finally, ice cream and cake on the same utensil!