Lesser spotted portmanteau words

Posted by on October 16, 2012

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.

Comments (17)
  • Nice post Stan, thanks! Worth pointing out detail that only one of the words that combines needs to be broken down for the combo to count as a blend – sometimes, one of the words remains intact, e.g. ‘staycation’ (= stay + vacation) ‘webinar’. (web + seminar).

    Posted by Kerry on 16th October, 2012
  • That’s a good point, Kerry, and one I should probably have made clearer in the post. Thank you!

    Posted by Stan on 16th October, 2012
  • There’s a number of things here I thought I knew but didn’t. For example, I thought “portmanteau” came from portman and manteau, where a portman is presumably some eponymous object. Also, I had no idea that Humpty Dumpty (or anyone else in authority) ever actually supplied definitions for words like “slithy”.

    I like the idea of the contradictionary, but how would it work? You can’t alphabeticise something that remains the same when paraphrased.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 17th October, 2012
  • Adrian: Glad it informed! I think of Portman primarily as a proper name, as in Natalie, but uncapitalised it appears to have two old senses: an inhabitant or an administrator of a town.
    I admit I didn’t think very hard or systematically about how a contradictionary might be organised, but it would depend on what kind of paradoxes were included. Phrasal ones could be ordered as in a phrasal dictionary.

    Posted by Stan on 17th October, 2012
  • There’s a story in the Telegraph today about a portmanteau-based marketing campaign for Edinburgh being heavily criticised. “Incrediburgh” didn’t hit the spot, apparently, and “Welfedinburgh” and “Painthetownedinburgh” were also considered…

    Posted by Stan on 17th October, 2012
  • Interesting post. It’s fascinating to see how words are created (“Banoffee” may not have crossed the Atlantic yet). Note that words can be created in translation, as well: http://www.alsintl.com/blog/translating-language/

    Posted by Amy on 19th October, 2012
  • Amy: Bannoffee has no hits in COCA, but it shows up in the Google Books corpus from the 1980s/1990s onward in both BrE and AmE.

    Posted by Stan on 19th October, 2012
  • …and banoffee doesn’t appear at all in the British National Corpus (circa 1990; it is quite frequent in the UKWaC corpus (circa 200os), with 58 hits in 1.6 billion woids (=36 hits per billion words of text); then seems to tail off a little, with just 257 hits in the 13 billion word EnTenTen12 corpus (with texts from the last couple of years), which represents about 18 hits per billion words. So has banoffee pie passed its peak?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 19th October, 2012
  • Michael: Maybe it has. Another factor might be an increase in people misspelling it, as I did in my previous comment! (I meant banoffee, and this is what I checked in the corpora.) Thanks for the additional stats.

    Posted by Stan on 20th October, 2012
  • I hadn’t known the origin of banoffee and will in future order my dessert with some reverence. As for “slithy” Lewis Carroll has a lot to answer for. I can’t even say the word without curling my lips in distaste!

    Posted by Helen on 23rd October, 2012
  • Helen: The first time I heard banoffee it struck me as a strange word and imagined it ended in ‘y’; the second time, I saw it written down and figured it surely came from banana + toffee, which I later confirmed. Sounds like slithy is too close to slimy (and maybe also slither) for your liking!

    Posted by Stan on 24th October, 2012
  • Thank you very much for the quotation from J.W.N.Sullivan, both for the useful alternative meaning of portmanteau and for the overall point he is making.

    It was a small disappointment to us, when we told our friends our younger daughter would be called Tove (Danish name from history and folksong), that only one inquired whether she was slithy.

    Posted by old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com on 26th October, 2012
  • You’re welcome, Old Gobbo. Maybe some people thought about slithy but refrained from asking about it.

    Posted by Stan on 26th October, 2012
  • [...] to add: Of course I didn’t remember this until after I posted, but here’s a great post on portmanteaus by Stan Carey on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. He does a better job at explaining a portmanteau [...]

    Posted by Serious enough for a portmanteau. | As a Linguist… on 29th October, 2012
  • I’ve tweeted / blogged about the relatively recent (?) BrE pronunciation by otherwise RP speakers of brought/bought and broadcasting/boardcasting. Could the latter be considered a sort of portmanteau when used for “broadcasting about snow- and skateboarding”? Maybe not, as the words board and cast are unchanged?

    Posted by Edward Vanderpump on 15th November, 2012
  • Edward: I would consider boardcasting “broadcasting about snow- and skateboarding” to be a portmanteau — a boardmanteau, even. The r-dropping you refer to is a separate issue, though, and living in Ireland I have not noticed this pronunciation pattern.

    Posted by Stan on 15th November, 2012
  • […] is a portmanteau word that blends portmanteau + monster. It fills a small semantic niche, but a useful one not least […]

    Posted by Portmonsteau words and films: They Came From the Blender! | Sentence first on 11th July, 2014
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