Telescoped portmanteaus

Two recent additions to my portmanteau file: verminfestation ‘vermin infestation’ (found while looking for more -festation words like fleafestation — see here) and teenius ‘teen genius’ (found by Victor Steinbok). Both are deliberately playful, both are telescopings of N+N compounds, both have the contributing words spliced together (rather than merely having the first word substitute for the initial part of the second word, as happens in fleafestation), and both have some material (phonological and/or orthographic) shared by the two contributors (/ɪn/ for verminfestation, /in/ for teenius).

1. Verminfestation comes from the Godzillionaire blog — note the pasting together of the contributors in the name: God + zillionaire  (“If God were a zillionaire, this is the blog he would buy”), with a possible alternative analysis as a splice portmanteau, Godzilla + zillionaire — where standup comedian Myq Kaplan invents words for fun. The posting with verminfestation in it is entitled “Drats”, and it’s about rats and cats.

Three of the four portmanteaus in this posting are, to my mind, lame, because they work orthographically but not phonologically, in part because of problems with accent placement: the first of the contributors has the shared syllable unaccented, but the second has it accented. As a result, either treatment of the shared syllable is unsatisfactory, because it masks the identity of one of the contributors, as in bubonicky (bubonic + icky) and ironice (ironic + nice).

It is true that vèrminfestátion is better than vèrmìnfestátion, at least if you’re familiar with the -festátion of flèafestátion.

(The remaining example in the posting, mewsful, understood as mews + useful, doesn’t have the accent problem, but it’s not great semantically, since it’s likely to be understood as ‘full of mews’, or even ‘full of mewses’.)

2. Teenius comes from an episode of the tv detective comedy Psych (season 2, episode 7, “If You’re So Smart, Then Why Are You Dead?”, in 2006), in an exchange between the Gus and Shawn, the two partners in a psychic detective agency, about what cover identities they will adopt on their latest case:

GUS (interrupting): Stop, Shawn.  I’ve already worked it out.  We’re documentarians working on a new film called [as he says the name, he does a marquee gesture with his hands] Teeniuses: In the Mix.

SHAWN: “Teeniuses”?

GUS: Yes.

SHAWN: Really, dude?  [GUS does the marquee gesture again.]  You got “Teeniuses” right on the tip of your tongue?

GUS (with marquee gesture): In the Mix.

[Psych, which is set in Santa Barbara, is a Guilty Pleasure for me. It’s a bro-show, about two wise-cracking young men who’ve been best friends since childhood. Gus is black, Shawn is white, so there are echoes here of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the 60s tv series I Spy — only with dudetalk — and of an assortment of buddy movies. It’s charming and often silly.]

As it happens, the very next year (2007) the movie Teenius came out. Plot summary from the IMDB:

Nothing ever happens at El Dorado High. However, that all changes when Eugene Youngblood — loner, rebel, new kid at school — falls head over heels in love with Iris Kong, a beautiful, nerdy “teen genius.” Iris is obsessed with winning the school science fair; Gene is obsessed with winning Iris’ heart. Things get weird when teachers and students start turning up dead at school. Believing demons are the cause, Iris, Gene, and Lewis, Gene’s wizard-like best friend, team up to solve the mystery. As they get deeper and deeper into the world of the supernatural, they discover that not only does the fate of their school hang in the balance, but so does the fate of love, the universe, and existence itself.

(Of course, the fate of the world always depends on what the kids do. As in Buffy.)

And now there’s a website:

Simon Rogers, who is still in his Teenage, blogs at providing tips for making money online. (link)

3. On portmanteaus and compounds. A passage from a 2009 posting of mine on memebrids (meme hybrids):

Now memebrid is a portmanteau, a kind of hybrid, but the memebrid in question, feminist hawk ‘hawk who is a feminist’, is not. Instead, it’s an instance of a different scheme for combining two words to make a new word: compounding. (The OED entry for portmanteau makes the connection between the two phenomena explicit.) A compound has a dual nature: it is a word, but it also consists of two words in sequence; it has an internal structure.

In some portmanteaus, one of the contributing words appears intact (and the other appears only in abbreviated form); this is the case for memebrid, where meme appears intact, while hybrid is shortened to -brid. But many portmanteaus — brunch, spork — have both contributing words abbreviated (br– + -unch, sp- + -ork). [This is the distinction between substitution portmanteaus and splice portmanteaus.]

Still other portmanteaus have both contributors intact, but overlapping: bromance is bro + romance, with -ro- shared (in pronunciation and in spelling); the corresponding compound would be bro romance. In fact, there’s often overlapping in portmanteaus in general: Billary is Bill + Hillary, with shared -ill-; Scalito is Scalia + Alito, with shared -ali-. (Overlapping is a property these portmanteaus have in common with one large class of inadvertent blends, called “splice blends” in the literature: originary is original + ordinary, with shared -in-.)

4. Substitutions and splices. The distinction comes from studies of inadvertent blends in syntax. From Elizabeth Coppock’s “Alignment in Syntactic Blending” (here):

A substitution blend is formed by the substitution of a single word in one target for a single word in another target. A splice blend is formed by taking an initial sequence from one target and a final sequence from another target. In addition to these two basic types, Fay [(1982)] also defined two types of blends derived from the basic types: indeterminate blends and complex blends. Indeterminate blends are those which can be analyzed either as splice blends or as substitution blends. For example, consider (4). It could be analyzed either as the substitution of accept for believe, or a concatenation of the initial substring up to the vertical bar in of source (a) onto the final substring beginning at the vertical bar of source (b). Similarly, in (5), we have two ways of analyzing the example, either as a substitution involving the bolded words, or as a splice of buy with on clothes.

(4)       people who accept | in the Gospel

a.         people who accept | the Gospel
b.         people who believe | in the Gospel

(5)       a little less money to buy | on clothes

a.         a little less money to spend | on clothes
b.         a little less money to buy | clothes

Complex blends are the opposite of indeterminate blends: they cannot be analyzed either as splice blends or substitution blends. [A figure] shows the percentages of the various blend types in the two corpora [Fay and Cohen]. Only around 5% of each corpus is constituted by “complex” blends; “indeterminate” blends are the most common type by far, and substitution and splice blends are somewhere in the middle.


Cohen, Gerald (1987). Syntactic Blends in English Parole.

Fay, David (1982). Substitutions and splices: A study of sentence blends. In Slips of the Tongue and Language Production, ed. by Anne Cutler.

2 Responses to “Telescoped portmanteaus”

  1. Data points: idiom blends 9/24/11 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a 2006 episode of the tv series Psych, “Death is in the Air”: Is she dead? Shawn: As a bag of rocks. Gus: That’s […]

  2. Brief mention: telescoping | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Telescoped portmanteaus are also frequently committed intentionally, as in verminfestation ‘vermin infestation’ and teenius ‘teen genius’, reported in this posting.) […]

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