I get a lot of messages, from one source or another, about portmanteau words. The most recent was from an e-mail correspondent about viewser (viewer + user), which turns out to be old news: Grant Barrett has an entry in his Double-Tongued Dictionary, with a pile of citations (the earliest from 1995 and 1997), and Paul McFedries has an entry on his Word Spy site, with further discussion.

But other finds seem to be more recent. Good places to check cases out include Double-Tongued Dictionary and Word Spy, because they specialize in innovations and have carefully researched, scholarly treatments. There are several other good sources, but don’t trust the Urban Dictionary on such things. When they achieve some currency, innovations (including portmanteaus) find their way into the regular “Among the New Words” column in the journal American Speech.

I’ll catalogue some examples of (apparently) recently innovated portmanteaus that have come by me in the past few months. (Please don’t offer me more examples. I’m not really a collector of these things. Grant Barrett is. Or you could subscribe to the American Dialect Society mailing list and discuss your examples there.) But first a few words about portmanteaus.There are two main ways two (or more) words can combine to form a new word. These are both, confusingly, often called “blends” (so are a large collection of other phenomena that involve, or appear to involve, combinations of expressions), but they are very different in character.

One way is through inadvertent error in language production (a type of “slip of the tongue”): the words are in competition for some slot in production, and instead of choosing one or the other, the speaker (usually) or writer (occasionally) ends up with something with parts of each:

Jespersen used it as the sort of originary example of… [spoken; original + ordinary]

… we presuppose *some* knowledge about languistic structure and variation. [written: language + linguistic]

When psycholinguists talk about “blends” (unmodified), this is the sort of thing they usually have in mind. There’s a considerable literature about them.

Then there are combinations that begin life as intentional hybrids. At first, they are often clever or playful, though they can just be compact ways of expressing a complex thought. Some of these portmanteau words, or simply portmanteaus, eventually become ordinary, unnotable words. (Saying that smog is a portmanteau is an observation about the word’s history, not, at least ordinarily, a claim about the processes going on in the mind of someone who speaks or writes the word. Ditto for brunch, the country name Tanzania, and many others, including playful creations like bromance and Brangelina.)

(Some Language Log discussion here.)

Now about the word portmanteau itself. Originally a borrowing from French, with the meaning

A case or bag for carrying clothing and other belongings when travelling; (originally) one of a form suitable for carrying on horseback; (now esp.) one in the form of a stiff leather case hinged at the back to open into two equal parts. [OED draft revision of June 2009, with cites from 1533 on]

It quickly became naturalized in English, and so has an ordinary English plural portmanteaus (though some pedants insist on portmanteaux, as if the word were still French after all these years). And it developed figurative senses:

a. Any container, receptacle, etc.; a repository or mixture of a number of disparate ideas, arguments, etc. [from ?1602 on]

b. A word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings… Also more generally: a term or phrase which encompasses two or more meanings… [from 1871 on: coined in this sense by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-glass: slithy ‘lithe and slimy’, mimsy ‘flimsy and miserable’]

c. Linguistics. A morph which represents two or more morphemes simultaneously. [from 1947 on, including a 1992 quote from AMZ]

(from the same draft revision of the OED). Figurative extension 2 is the one we’re interested in here.

Now for the recent examples. First some from ADS-L:

Darla Wells on 5/28: teacherpreneur
Arnold Zwicky on 6.8: shopportunity
Ben Zimmer on 6/8: Talibangelist, Talibangelical
Arnold Zwicky on 7/13: frenemy
Larry Horn and Ben Zimmer on 7/20: twinterview, twitterview

Then from various blogs:

AZBlog on 5/22: Saddlebacking
Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words on 8/8: appvertisement
AZBlog on 8/18: townterview
Ben Zimmer on Language Log, 8/22: diavlog
Victor Mair on Language Log, 8/22: washlet

9 Responses to “Portmanteaus”

  1. Danny Bloom Says:

    You are right about the UrbanDictionary. Anyone can submit a word or phrase to them, a team of editors vote on it informally online offline, and a new word can be accepted in just 30 minutes turn around time. I know because that is how i got “screening’ accepted. And 12 other words I submitted in the past 6 months. It’s definitely not a dictionary to be used in any other way than in fun.

  2. Meme hybrid alert « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] hybrid alert By arnoldzwicky Although in my posting on portmanteaus I declared that I wasn’t collecting them — there are just too many, and […]

  3. Short shot #21: portmanteau crop « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] I do try to note that strike me as having special interest (general discussion, with some examples, here and […]

  4. Inventory of portmanteau postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] AZBlog, 8/24/09: Portmanteaus (link) […]

  5. johnwcowan Says:

    Originary ‘in the nature of a source or origin’ is still shown as current by OED3 (there are many obsolete senses), with the most recent citation being 1991 Jrnl. Southern Afr. Stud. 17 572 “In ‘Teraloyna’, Gordimer imagines a place, an island just off the coast, an originary space which whites and blacks..shared.”

    So this may not be a blend at all, particularly if the (unnamed) author is echoing Jespersen’s original. One of the marks of erudition in a second language is unintentionally using words the natives hardly know exist, like Safire’s ambassador’s use of glacis state for buffer state. Perfectly standard collocation, and not a journalist in the bunch knew what the hell he was talking about.

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To John Cowan on originary: the cite is from a native speaker of American English (a linguistics professor), not quoting Jespersen, and the speaker afterwards said that originary wasn’t what was intended.

  7. twitter tweet « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (-aholic, as in chocaholic, and for that matter, tweetaholic). Very often, the existing word is a portmanteau word, so that it can be unclear whether we’re looking at a freshly minted portmanteau word or […]

  8. Combos « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (some discussion here). […]

  9. portmanteaux? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] from my 2009 posting “Portmanteaus”, with the especially relevant bit boldfaced: … about the word […]

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