Portmanteau spawns libfix

It’s an often-told story: A portmanteau word (useful or playful or both) invites other portmanteaus sharing an element (usually the second), and then these drift from the phonology and semantics of the original to such an extent that the shared element takes on a life of its own — is “liberated” as an affix. Some examples follow.

-dar: gaydar ‘ability to detect that people are gay’ (gay + radar, the second historically an acronym) motivated a pile of other -dar portmanteaus (Language Log discussions herehere, and here), so that eventually -dar came to be seen as a formative on its own, usable with bases other than monosyllables (from jewdar and blackdar, eventually to humordar and sarcasmdar) and conveying not just ‘ability to detect people in some social group’ but more generally ‘ability to detect some quality’.

-nomics: The story of -dar is parallel to the way -nomics (originating in economics) broke free, through the mediation of portmanteaus like Reaganomics and (especially) Freakonomics. (Meanwhile, -omics is on its way, from genomics, via portmanteaus like culturomics; discussion of both here.)

-tini, -kini, and -zilla: These are at various stages of liberation, furthest for -zilla (based on Godzilla), less for -kini (based on bikini) and -tini (based on martini). Discussion of the -ini formatives here, -zilla here.

-cation: Now, going back a bit, there’s -cation (based on vacation), here.

At first, -cation, as in staycation (stay + vacation, ‘a vacation in which you stay at home’) was pretty closely tethered to its roots. But then the first element diverged phonologically from monosyllables, giving things like seniorcation and Eurocation. And its second element generalized semantically, to anything having to do with vacations, as in kidcation ‘vacation from kids’. This isn’t all the way to a fully semantically generalized -cation, which might mean something like ‘absence’ or ‘break in routine’, but it’s on the way.

In any particular case, the question is whether speakers see themselves as combining two words (in a portmanteau, essentially compounding with overlap) or as combining a base and a suffix-like element (in libfixation). Probably some people go one way, some the other, and some change over time.

10 Responses to “Portmanteau spawns libfix”

  1. Francesca Says:

    I’m not sure whether it might actually be regarded as a ‘portmanteau case’, but I would like to add ‘-burger’. First, the word was ‘hamburger’, because it was a typical meat-dish from the city of Hamburg. Then someone must have believed that the word was ‘ham’ + ‘burger’, so that ‘cheese’ could easily replace ‘ham’…

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Hamburger is a famous example of (eggcorn-like) reanalysis, or “recutting”, leading to a formative -burger (and ultimately to burger as an independent word).

      Portmanteaus are one source of libfixes, but many libfixes arise without going through portmanteaus as an intermediate stage.

  2. mollymooly Says:

    I like your coinage “libfix” and will do my bit to give it traction.

    I’m struggling to think of examples of “prelibfix”es. Neither “photo-“(e.g. -journalist) nor “tele-“(e.g. -genic) counts: they may be broken from “photograph” and “television” but were combining forms at an earlier stage, and indeed standalone clippings. “Euro-” is a bit stronger but not much. Maybe “edu-” in “edutainment” would count? Or does “-tainment” have dibs on that word’s libfix quota? Or can a word comprise a prelibfix and postlibfix?

    I have the impression that end-clippings tend to seem more playful than initial-clippings. Maybe a prefix is too dignified to be considered a libfix.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      My libfix files have the PRE elements Euro-, lingua-, Franken-, spokes-, prosti-, man-, and bro-, several of which have been posted about on Language Log or this blog. Many (but not all) have portmanteau words as an intermediate stage. All show semantic shifts (as do photo- in photojournalist and tele- in telegenic), and all are “combining forms”, similar to the elements of compounds in some ways. (POST elements are mostly like this as well, but some are closer to ordinary suffixes.)

      English is richer in suffixal morphology than prefixal, so it’s not surprising that POST libfixes outnumber PRE ones. I find it hard to judge the relative playfulness levels.

  3. Inventory of libfix postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (-dar, -nomics, -tini, -kini, -zilla, -cation) AZBlog, 5/27/11: Portmanteau spawns libfix (link). In comments: -burger; the photo- of photojournalist, the tele- of telegenic, and the edu- of […]

  4. A little libfixfest « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] three portmanteau elements that have become libfixes (see “Portmanteau spawns libfix”, here): the -tainment of crackpot-tainment (see “The evolution of Zippytainment”, here), the […]

  5. Gaydar in the news « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] On the word gaydar and the -dars it spawned: -dar: gaydar ‘ability to detect that people are gay’ (gay + radar, the second historically an acronym) motivated a pile of other -dar portmanteaus (Language Log discussions here, here, and here), so that eventually -dar came to be seen as a formative on its own [a libfix], usable with bases other than monosyllables (from jewdar and blackdar, eventually to humordar and sarcasmdar) and conveying not just ‘ability to detect people in some social group’ but more generally ‘ability to detect some quality’. (link) […]

  6. Defining libfixation | Wellformedness Says:

    […] himself has noted the existence of a blend-libfix cline, and the tendency of blends to become libfixes. He suggests the following natural […]

  7. -cel goes libfix | Wellformedness Says:

    […] as is often the case, the clipping in incel and volcel appears to have spawned a libfix, an affix-like formative […]

  8. Defining libfixes | Wellformedness Says:

    […] himself has noted the existence of a blend-libfix cline, and the tendency of blends to become libfixes. He suggests the following natural […]

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