Lewis Carroll’s fiction abounds in puns, paradoxes, and plays on logic, but among the most enduring of its linguistic pleasures are the portmanteau words he invented. Portmanteau words, also called blends, are words that ‘combine the sound and meaning of two words’, for example brunch, which blends breakfast and lunch, and Wikipedia, formed from wiki + encyclopedia.
Carroll’s famous nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which features in Through the Looking-Glass, supplies several examples. Some have entered general use: chortle, for instance, is an expressive term blending chuckle and snort; galumph (appearing in the poem as galumphing) may derive from gallop and triumphant; and burble combines bleat, murmur, and warble – though Carroll could not recall creating it this way, and burble has also been a variant spelling of bubble since the fourteenth century.
Other portmanteaus coined by Carroll are less frequent in the language, but remain familiar through the popularity of his fantastic literature; these include slithy (slimy + lithe) and mimsy (miserable + flimsy – though mimsey means prim and careful). All things considered it’s not a bad success rate for neologisms, as Liz Potter observed. Portmanteau itself is a portmanteau word, made by combining the French words for ‘carry’ (porter) and ‘cloak’ (manteau). Indeed, Looking-Glass contains the first use of portmanteau in the linguistic sense: Before Carroll had Humpty Dumpty explain it to Alice, the word was restricted to suitcases and the like.
Blends are a frequent source of lexical innovation. This is because, as I once wrote, ‘much of the groundwork has already been laid in the form of two or more existing words’, and there is ‘a surreal kind of entertainment in seeing words joined improbably together’. So they’re an easy and a popular way for anyone to invent a new word. Wonderland itself is often blended, yielding such forms as funderland, blunderland, and blenderland – which I coined for the title, though it has independent existence elsewhere.
New portmanteau words are not always welcomed with open arms, of course. Some, such as staycation, webinar, stagflation and phablet, are widely disliked. But often it’s just their unfamiliarity and perceived awkwardness that earns them objections – if they survive long enough they come to seem more normal. So don’t let that stop you inventing your own.
For more on this and related topics, see Macmillan’s dedicated page on humour in English, with special focus on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and our collection of favourite portmanteau words (including my own contributions). And be sure to share your own favourites or creations in a comment.Email this Post