To my recent “Pornmanteaus” posting, Chris Ambidge comments tersely:


intending, no doubt, that this should be understood as a correction of my spelling. I’m sticking by my spelling, for reasons I’ve given on this blog.

Background from my 2009 posting “Portmanteaus”, with the especially relevant bit boldfaced:

… 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 [from the OED]:

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]

(Longer discussion of various kinds of combos in language here.)

Then last month Joe Waggle commented on my “Anatomical portmanteaus” posting, asking:

is “portmanteaus” the proper word here, since we’re speaking in an english context, or would the correct plural still be “portmanteaux” from the original french? what’s the rule on anglicizing words like that?

To which I replied:

In general, if a word has become English, it takes English inflection. (In practice, that principle applies only to noun plurals; no one carries over case inflection from German, say, or inflectional forms of verbs.) There are exceptions, mostly involving learnèd borrowings (including some of some vintage). Otherwise, preserving the inflection is a sign that the word hasn’t been nativized, that you’re quoting material from another language.

But portmanteau is a bit more complicated than that. If you spell the plural PORTMANTEAUX, how do you pronounce that plural? If you pronounce it like portmanteaus (with a final /z/), then the spelling seems silly, at odds with the pronunciation, serving only to signal foreignness visually. If you pronounce it like French (with no final fricative, with no [t] at the end of the first syllable, with a nasalized vowel in the second syllable, maybe even with a French monophthongal [o] at the end, but certainly with accent on the final syllable, though many British speakers prefer accent on the second syllable), then you’re signalling that for you it’s an unassimilated loanword, despite its long history in English. I suppose there are some people who pronounce PORTMANTEAUX as entirely English except for the lack of a final fricative (which means that in pronunciation it’s a zero plural for them, with PORTMANTEAUX and PORTMANTEAU homophonous); that strikes me as an odd compromise between Frenchness and Englishness.

[added 7/8/11: Then there’s the possibility of pronouncing PORTMANTEAUX with a final /ks/, giving X its usual English pronunciation, but I hope we’ll all agree that that’s just wrong.]

Maybe some people like the plural spelled PORTMANTEAUX just because it shows off their knowledge of French.

I’m not saying that the spelling PORTMANTEAUX is *wrong*, only recommending PORTMANTEAUS instead.

I’ve quoted the whole thing here because it seems likely that Chris Ambidge, and most other readers, didn’t catch my reply. Comments and replies to them are likely to go unread unless they come very quickly after the material they’re following up on.


5 Responses to “portmanteaux?”

  1. beslayed Says:

    The plural of beau is usually spelled with an -s (rather -x) too, isn’t it.

    In Optimality Theory, the table showing competition between candidates/competing constraints is usually called a tableau, and, I think, was often pluralised as tableaux, though in pronunciation it tended to be given standard English pluralisation.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    On tableaux vs. tableaus: semantic tableau is a logicians’ term (Wikipedia entry here), which seems to be more often pluralized as tableaux than as tableaus (though they are pronounced the same). But some logicians (including some who taught me at Princeton) prefer the nativized spelling. I can’t recall anyone seeing the spelling as an issue worth debating.

    In the case of portmanteau, the practice of people who study these things seems to be heavily in favor of the nativized spelling.

  3. Éamonn McManus Says:

    I think I *would* say that the spelling “portmanteaux” is wrong; the French plural is indeed spelt with an x, but the French word to which the x is attached is “portemanteau”.

  4. Robert Says:

    “If you pronounce it like French (with no final fricative, with no [t] at the end of the first syllable…)”

    I’d never thought about this before, but is the original French actually “portmanteau”? My impression is that most French compounds of this type are formed of “verb-noun”, with the verb typically in the third-person singular present indicative. as “tire-bouchon” = “corkscrew” (literally, “pull[s]-cork”) or “passe-partout” = “latchkey” (“pass[es]-everywhere”). On that principle I would expect the thing in which one carries a coat (and by extension other clothing) to be a “porte-manteau” (in which case the [t] *would* be pronounced, of course), and the spelling would then already represent a level of Anglicization.

    But I could be all wet.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      (And from E. McM.) Yes, French portemanteau. According to the OED, so spelled in English in the 16th century, though the E-less variant appears late in that century and then quickly becomes the standard spelling in English. (I’d missed this on my earlier explorations.) So, indeed, it was already being Anglicized 300 years ago, which makes the X-plural look even quainter.

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