A portmanteau word, also known as a blend, is “a word that combines the sound and meaning of two words” – such as brunch (breakfast + lunch), guesstimate (guess + estimate), banoffee (banana + toffee) and Wikipedia (wiki + encyclopedia). The combining words have to blend: if they remain intact, as in keyboard or skydive, the result is a compound.
Portmanteau word came about by reference to a large leather suitcase known as a portmanteau that’s hinged to open into two compartments (from French porter “carry” + manteau “cloak”). Macmillan Dictionary labels this usage “old-fashioned”, and I don’t recall ever encountering it except in fiction from decades ago. Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty introduce the analogy in Through the Looking Glass:
Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.
Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.
Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary. One of my earliest posts for Macmillan was about so-called man-words such as mandals and mirdles, and later posts looked at webinar and slacktivism; all of these fall into the category of portmanteau words. The first two are obscure and obviously jocular; the next two have attained wider currency.
Portmanteau has meanings aside from word blending and compartmentalised suitcases. A portmanteau film, drawing on the same idea, is a compendium of short films. More unusual is the adjectival sense of portmanteau which, when referring to a description or expression, can mean “of general or widespread application”. This is not a common sense, but I saw it recently in J. W. N. Sullivan’s book Beethoven (1927). The passage is worth quoting in full:
Language, as an historical accident, is poor in names for subjective states, and consequently in names for the imputed properties of objects that produce those states. Even such words as love and hate, dealing with emotions to which mankind has always paid great attention, are merely portmanteau words. Within their meanings are not only differences of degree, but differences of kind. To conclude, because the word ‘beauty’ exists almost in isolation, that it refers to some definite quality of objects, or that it is descriptive of some one subjective state, is to mistake a deficiency in language for a key to truth.
So a portmanteau word need not be a blend at all – though nowadays it almost always is. Language may have its philosophical deficiencies, but of portmanteau words in their familiar form we have a fantabulous admirabundance.Email this Post