Portmanteau fashion

Back in July Katy Steinmetz at TIME Magazine wrote me about portmanteaus and whether people are more prone to inventing them than they used to be. I had the impression that they are, but then I’m abnormally focused on portmanteaus, so my impressions aren’t worth much. I spent some time thinking about how to test the hypothesis, but without inspiration. Katy went on to post a nice piece on the subject, taking Twitter as the hook: “We, the Tweeple: Why Twitter Inspires So Many New Words” on July 24th (here).

Then this morning I thought of a fresh way to tackle the question, indirectly, by using the Google Ngram Viewer. But that just made the whole business murkier.

Katy’s piece begins:

Public relations firm Burson-Marsteller released its annual “Twiplomacy” report today. An analysis of how world leaders use Twitter, the name is the baby born of obvious parents: Twitter and diplomacy. It’s also a soldier in an army of fusion words—or portmanteaus—inspired by the social media site.

Every day, new combinations march into being. Twitteracy is the ability to understand the medium. Twittebrities are the A-listers who use it. Twitterati, Twittersphere, tweeple, tweetup, twisticuffs, twelete, twirting. There’s no question that there are a twitload. But why, exactly, is Twitter such a fusion muse? And will any of them last?

… Writing a CNN op-ed about the world’s fast obsession with cronut and Sharknado, author Lee Siegel suggests that pop culture may be in the midst of a “portmanteau craze,” driven by technology and a focus on visuals rather than concepts. A sharknado, he says, is a hard image to drive out of one’s brain box. Siegel goes so far as to wonder whether the viral spread of words like bromance and frenemy “herald a new phase in American verbal creativity.” [Lexicographer Steve] Kleinedler, for one, is skeptical—though he concedes that we may be more aware of portmanteaus than we used to be. That’s partly because crowded (social) media sites quickly latch onto anything new, clever and distinctive enough to rise above the noise on a given day. “Snappy portmanteaus certainly work well on Twitter, where space is at a premium and linguistic memes can spread quickly via hashtagging,” [linguist Ben] Zimmer says.

However, spreading quickly does not often give way to lasting long. Cronuts are already ceding ground to crookies in news stories. Obamaquester is a distant memory. The Internet gave new slang the potential to reach more people much faster—and when more people are exposed to new words, there’s a good chance they’ll get tired of them faster, too. “Very often these new portmanteaus are just the meme-tastic flavor of the week,” Zimmer says, “and their fall to the linguistic scrapheap is just as rapid as their ascent.”

People are indeed fond of inventing new words, mostly by portmanteauing — Lizzie Skurnick offers at least one coinage each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine — but these playful creations have no chance of catching on; they’re just for show.

On to the Ngram Viewer. First result, for the word portmanteau:


The trend is generally downhill. One of the local maxima is in fact in 1871, the year that the word first appeared as a linguistic term (in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass), but I wouldn’t put much emphasis on that; the early cites are almost all references to the portmanteau as a piece of luggage. The decline of portmanteau in the 20th century turns out to be a result of the rise of the competitor term suitcase.

OED2 on suitcase:

A small portmanteau designed to contain a suit of clothes. Hence more generally, a piece of luggage in the form of an oblong case, usu. with a hinged side and a handle, for carrying clothes and other belongings.

The OED‘s first cite for suitcase is from 1902. The word quickly carried the day, leaving portmanteau as used almost entirely as a linguistic term — at pretty much the same level of frequency since 1940.

Of course, blend has a long history of use to refer to portmanteaus, but that’s even harder to search for intelligently.


One Response to “Portmanteau fashion”

  1. Stan Says:

    The Guardian website had the self-explanatory portmanteau celebrospective on its front page today. It seems fairly recent, but I wouldn’t mind if this one didn’t catch on.

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