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Your favourite portmanteau words

© Stockbyte Royalty Free PhotoToday is the 183rd birthday of the English mathematician, logician, photographer and clergyman Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. If you’re wondering why such an obscure figure deserves to be celebrated, I should quickly add that Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, was the author of the children’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, along with the nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark.

Linguistic inventiveness is an intrinsic part of Carroll’s works for children, and some of his coinages have become part of the language. Through the Looking-Glass in particular is concerned with what words mean and how we know what they mean. The book contains the famous nonsense poem Jabberwocky, whose meaning is explained to Alice by Humpty Dumpty, and it is in the course of this explanation that the term portmanteau is first used with a  linguistic meaning:

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.

Portmanteau is a French loanword that originally referred to a piece of luggage which opens into two sections. Carroll’s borrowing of it to mean a word that combines two existing words into a single whole caught on, and we still refer to such words as portmanteau words, or blends. So as part of Macmillan’s 150 years of Alice in Wonderland celebrations, we decided to ask our regular contributors to tell us what their favourite portmanteau word is and why. A few confessed to not liking them at all, but most found something to enjoy in this little corner of the word formation forest. Here are their answers (please feel free to share your favourite portmanteau words via the Comments).

I love this idea. My blog Sentence first takes its name from a line by Lewis Carroll, and I’ve written about portmanteau words a couple of times at Macmillan. I find them both fun and lexically interesting, and I’m looking forward to seeing other people’s favourites. I often invent them on a whim, so I’m going to be cheeky here and pick two of my own: ineptnorant and portmonsteau.
Ineptnorant blends inept and ignorant, and describes someone who is inept and also ignorant of their ineptness. A useful term, I think, but it hasn’t caught on yet! Portmonsteau is a sillier beast; it blends portmanteau with monster and refers to words like Sharknado, Mermantula, Dinocroc and Piranhaconda – hybrid creatures from the B-movie subgenre of portmonsteau films. Niche and self-referential, but that’s trashy horror for you.
Stan Carey (Sentence First, on Twitter at @StanCarey)

It’s definitely chortle, which was actually coined by Lewis Carroll himself. I like to think he was chuckling and snorting at the time. But isn’t it interesting how these portmanteau words sound funny and peculiar the first time we hear them, but before long we’re using them without noticing?
Vicki Hollett

As BuzzWord author and neologism lover, then I’d have to go for a ‘new’ portmanteau. One of the earliest BuzzWords and one of my all-time favourites is flexitarian. A blend of flexible and vegetarian, it’s a lovely polysyllabic word to get your mouth around, but the real reason it’s a winner for me is because it’s such a handy term. Flexitarian genuinely fills a lexical gap for a familiar concept – the person who mainly has a vegetarian diet but enjoys the occasional carnivorous fix. My guess is that most people will know a person that fits that description.
Kerry Maxwell (BuzzWord author)

I had never given much thought to portmanteau words, but after Macmillan’s invitation to celebrate Lewis Carroll, I started searching for a word that could be my favourite, and I found one that I had always taken for granted. It’s one of those words we’ve heard since childhood, so we usually don’t look it up in a dictionary. It’s vitamin, and I didn’t know it comes from vita (life in Latin) and amine! This word was created in 1912 by a biochemist called Casimir Funk because he thought there was an amino acid in the vitamins. Later he was proved wrong, but the word came to stay, and it only dropped its final e (vitamine). That’s it! Vitamin is now my favourite portmanteau word!
Jussara Simões (English-Portuguese translator from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

My favourite portmanteau word is spam, the North American meat product combining pork and spiced ham that was developed shortly before the Second World War. I like the fact that, with the introduction of the internet, the word describing the ubiquitous meat product went on to be applied to all-pervasive unsolicited email messages. Spam is an interesting example of an invented word that retains one of its essential semantic properties, ‘ubiquity’, to morph, like a virus, into the expression of an entirely different form.
Simon Williams (University of Sussex)

My favourite portmanteau word is brunch, both for the satisfying sound of it, and for what it represents: breakfast merging into lunch, long lazy weekend days when meals blend into one another. What do you mean, greedy? It’s two meals in one, represented by two words rolled into one, so actually quite frugal.
Liz Potter (lexicographer and editor of the Macmillan Dictionary blog)

(of a man) explain something in a condescending and patronizing way to a woman, especially in situations where the woman already knows (possibly more than him) about the subject in question
a useful word to describe a common phenomenon
Katherine Barber (author of Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do with Pigs and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary)

I realized as I was looking at a list of portmanteaus to jog my memory that I don’t really love too many of them. Don’t get me wrong – many of them are very useful as shorthand and some are in use every day, but so many of them seem forced and unimaginative. Maybe that makes me a purist or an old fart, I don’t know. I do like the ones that sound good, however – the over-the-top almost onomatopoeic ones that give voice to a strong feeling like bodacious, ridonkulous, fantabulous, and the highly colorful vomitrocious. I’m not sure, old fart that I am, I’d choose to use the last one, but it gets its point across very clearly, and I just like knowing it’s available should I ever need it.
Karen Stern (librarian and freelance lexicographer/editor)

There are plenty of awful portmanteau words. Step forward jazzercise (Jazz exercise) for example, or, even worse, dramedy (dramatic comedy) which surely must merit a prison sentence. Some portmanteau neologisms are saved by their functionality. I can put up with the clunky Grexit for instance if I don’t have to hear ‘Greek exit from the Euro’ fifty times a day. Why do some portmanteau words hit the lexical sweet spot? Rom-com does it for me but am I responding to the film genre rather than the word itself? Perhaps it comes down to the fact that some combinations of letters and sound just work while others make us shudder. So yes to the amusing Brangelina (Brad and Angelina geddit!) but a big fat no to the horrible Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez).
Kieran McGovern (English Language FAQ)

From alcopop to zedonk, portmanteaus are everywhere. We read them in fanzines, maybe while listening to Californication or sipping frappuccino. Chinglish, Spanglish, Ebonics and other varieties of English contribute to new ones. I could write a ginormous text with lots of them, but Macmillan wants only my favorite one! So, although I’m a workaholic I guess I’ll pick chillax. Well, now I’ll just chillax, so no more edutainment from me today.
Denilso de Lima (ELT specialist and author in Brazil)

Lewis Carroll has indeed left us a wonderfully open-ended legacy – too often abused –  in the notion of the portmanteau word ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the neat and functional smog, motel or brunch to the unjustifiably absurd, unworthy of acceptance into the English language. One of my un-favourites, which has slipped through the cracks – even into the British Television News – is shambolic, an abysmal combination of the first part of shambles, an archaic term for a slaughterhouse, with an irrelevant person-forming suffix from alcoholic, for an informal description of a ‘chaotic mess’ which is nonsense. Similar gobblededook presumably meaning ‘of vast size’ is humungous. Greatly to be preferred is ginormous, which has  a semantically  respectable pedigree and potential usefulness in some contexts, which the other lacks. By comparison, two examples offered by Robert Burchfield [New Fowler 1999] sexploitation and croissandwiches could not be said to lack meaningful content, but do trespass beyond the bounds of credibility and would earn my grandchildren’s ultimate condemnation of ‘OTT’. This brings me beyond my remit to the dreaded acronym, all too nearly related to the not-so-new electronic English. Perhaps the first ancestor of all of them was I.O.U.
Dr Jean Branford (lexicographer)

It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I’ll go with flustrated, just because I like it when my dad says it. It’s an evocative blend of flustered and frustrated (as one can easily tell), and saying it, thereby mixing up a couple of apt words, can be seen as a symptom of the feeling it describes.
Lynne Murphy

I don’t know whether or not it’s achieved English currency yet, but my favourite new (or recent) portmanteau word is from Afrikaans, chosen by the WAT (Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal, Dictionary of the Afrikaans Language) as one of its top words for 2014. The word is parlemonium, probably spelt parliamonium in English. Its combination of parliament and pandemonium seems right for what is happening to electoral politics.
Tony Voss

In the 70s, American producers realised that there was a market for action movies which featured black actors in starring roles, often with a funky soundtrack, aimed at black audiences. I love those films and the music, composed by giants such as Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. Shaft and Superfly are two well-known examples. Since the movies were designed to exploit a market composed of young, urban black people, a portmanteau word was coined to describe the genre: blaxploitation.
Steve Taylore-Knowles (ELT author)

Chillaxing, smasually dressed in jeggings, and watching a docusoap sitcom telethon in my motel room, I consider what to have for brunch. Some Frankenfood, like tofurkey? a McBurger, if I decide to become flexitarian? I’m afraid I’m a ginormous Gruffalo when it comes to portmanteau words – and a liger doesn’t change its spots any more than a tigon.
Janet Gough

One of my favourite portmanteau words is bankster – a blend of banker and gangster – which first appeared in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The Crash led to tighter regulation of the banking industry, so bankster fell out of use after the mid-1930s. For many years after that, the word banker had positive connotations: bankers were seen as trustworthy, cautious, even slightly boring professionals who took care of our money. All this changed when banking regulations were relaxed again in the 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2008 is usually blamed on high-profile banksters taking excessive risks with other people’s money in order to earn the largest possible bonuses.
Michael Rundell (Editor-in-Chief of Macmillan Dictionary)

There’s something sexy about portmanteau words. Perhaps it’s because they come into being at the wellspring of linguistic fecundity. Two, sometimes incongruous, words strike up a relationship, consummate it, and, when successful, the result is a fresh new word that combines their individual qualities in a witty and exciting way.
I came across one of my favourites while bemoaning the state of my adolescent daughter’s bedroom to a friend. The floor of her bedroom had entirely disappeared under a raging sea of discarded clothes. “Ah,” said my friend, who also had kids, “a floordrobe!”
Floordrobe is a perfect marriage of sound and meaning. A magical new coinage that wittily transforms the chaos of adolescent untidiness into something that almost sounds organised and purposeful.
Martin Shovel (Creativity Works, on Twitter @MartinShovel)

I’ll tell you first about the portmanteau words that drive me up the wall. Living in West London as I do, it’s very hard to avoid portmanteau dogs, which are very popular with people with more money than they need and a host of servants to look after their children and other animals.
As a result, the parks near where I live are full of labradoodles, a combination of a Labrador and a Poodle, and others that sound even more silly – peekapoos and maltipoos, and my all-time least favourite, cockapoos.
The portmanteau word I like best is bromance – a combination of brother and romance, a strong non-sexual affection between two men. What I like about it is that it seems to offer an opportunity for genuine male friendship that doesn’t involve just talking about football and drinking beer.
Ken Wilson (ELT author and trainer)

Romcom (that is, a romantic comedy) has had a lot of staying power – both the term and the genre – and I like the way the two parts of the word rhyme. But in 2004 the film Shaun of the Dead was described by its makers as a romzomcom (a romantic zombie comedy), an impressive three-part portmanteau, and that’s the one that’s getting my vote.
Andrew Delahunty (freelance lexicographer and editor)

In my opinion, meshing two or more words to get a third word that is novel in its form and all-inclusive in its meaning, is a staple of the English language today. I can freely state that the additional ease when pronouncing these words (so-called ‘portmanteau’ words) makes them even more available to every age of speakers. It is indeed a difficult task to choose just one word out of the abundance of portmanteaus, yet if I had to pick only one, it would probably be Brangelina. It might not be the most obvious choice of word for a linguist, such as I am, but I consider it to be an example of how even personal names are certainly not excluded from the rules of creating a portmanteau! Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have not only gained their place in the world of Hollywood supercouples but also in the world of linguistics, showing that nothing and nobody can get away from the clasp of linguistic innovative creativity.
Aneta Naumoska (teacher of lexicology at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, Macedonia)

This is a type of English used by many Indians in conversations. Hinglish is a combination of Hindi and English, one of the classic examples of macaronic language. Many Indians, including those who are good at English, tend to use Hinglish in their daily conversations.
For instance, a homemaker may be heard saying,”You know, my husband ko der se aane ki aadat hai.” (My husband has a habit of coming late.)
A college student and cricket buff often says: “I’m sure ki (that) aaj (today) M.S. Dhoni will do kuchh (something) special. He is sachmuch (really) ek (a) khatarnak (dangerous) batsman and loves to attack the bowlers.”
Hinglish has spread across India and also reached other countries where Indians have settled down. And there are many Indians who mix not just Hindi with English but also their mother tongues. This has led to many offshoots, as it were, of Hinglish. For example, a Gujarati is inclined to mix his native words when communicating in English. A Punjabi is bound to bring words from his language when speaking in English.
Haresh Pandya (In addition to being a freelance journalist widely published in many leading publications of the world like The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Hindu, Haresh Pandya teaches English in a college in the Indian state of Gujarat.)

I’m not sure I could pick a favourite lexical blend! I recently moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, which is a bilingual (French and English) province. We have lots of bilingual signs that say things like Rue Sanders St and names like Pont Westmorland Bridge. In a few weeks we’ll have a winter festival called Winterfesthiver which could be viewed as a portmanteau-like combination of English Winter fest and French Fest hiver, which given the 5m tall snowbank outside my office I’ll pick as my current favourite.
Paul Cook (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Computer Science, University of New Brunswick)

I’ll settle on burqini (= an Islamically approved swimming costume for women that protects the wearer’s modesty) and Winterval (= a non-religious term for the Christmas Holidays pioneered by Birmingham (!) City Council a few years back). I guess I just like the creativity of these words, and the fact that they are motivated by a social need.
John Williams (Lexicturer at the University of Portsmouth)

What’s my favourite portmanteau word? This is really tough: there are so many brilliant and witty ones. I took the liberty of setting up some categories, and am further restricting my selection to recent coinages.
Most ghastly: tofurkey (tofu + turkey) is faux turkey, a meat substitute in the form of a loaf or casserole of vegetarian protein (tofu or seitan) (I find the word ghastly. I have never eaten it.)
Most precise: globesity (global + obesity). The new epidemic; obesity on a global scale.
Most fall-around-laughing: zonkey (zebra + donkey) a cross between a zebra and a donkey. I think the fall-around-laughing is due to the images called up by ‘zonk’ (a zonked-out donkey as opposed to one with striped legs.)
My overall vote (on purely linguistic grounds) goes to globesity for being a true portmanteau or blend: it seamlessly fuses the two elements via the shared ‘-ob-’ syllable.
Valerie Collins (Valerie is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. She also blogs about the English language.)

I don’t have a favorite but I have a favorite type: portmanteau words that manage to be amusing as well as informative, usually by blending their components in an unexpected way or by including as one part of the blend a word that has many humorous possibilities. Portmanteaus that fall into this category include bodacious, booboisie, fantabulous, futilitarian, ginormous, palimony, Spanglish.
Orin Hargraves (Orin is a computational linguist and lecturer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a former contributor to Macmillan Dictionary Blog. You can visit his website here.)

Identifying a favourite portmanteau word is a tricky one as I can’t say that I actually like any of them. However, a notable one for me in terms of its oxymoronic nature is glamping, made up of glamorous and camping. As the comedian Ed Byrne pointed out recently, “There’s nothing glamorous about camping”, hence the oxymoron. Glamping is what posh people do at music festivals like Glastonbury. Instead of sliding about in deep mud like the other 150,000 unfortunates, glampers stay in luxury yurts or similar with hot showers, fitted kitchens and, probably, a built-in butler and a jacuzzi. My own memories of camping are exclusively of being woken at 5am by pounding rain or by the early morning sun turning the inside of the tent into a sauna. As I have no prospect of being able to afford the luxury that glamping offers, I will forever shudder at the memory of muzzy-headed exhaustion and vow never to go camping again.
Tim Bowen (ELT author)

If you’d like to read more about portmanteau words here on the blog, you can find a selection of posts on the topic on this page.

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  • My favourite is “spork”, a handy little thing to have with you when camping/going for long walks and you don’t want to carry to much with you.

  • Oh, I love ‘floordrobe’! It definitely fills a lexical gap in our house. I wonder if there is a version of it for books left lying around? My personal favourite is ‘framily’ – and why? Because it so efficiently packs ‘friends and family’ into one word.

  • I’ve already had one bite, but Kerry’s contribution reminded me of a different use of the suffix -arian.

    So can I make a bid for ‘austeritarian’ (=austerity + authoritarian) to describe, say, the EU’s current attitude to Greece? ‘Austeritarianism’ is no doubt practised by ‘banksters’ (thanks Michael), but not on themselves of course, only other people.

  • Kati – I have heard the little shelf of books that some people keep in their toilet described as a ‘loobrary’, which is rather neat.

    Oh, and I’ve just remembered the ‘Brumbrella’, the huge covering used to protect the Edgbaston cricket pitch (in Birmingham) from rain in the 80s and 90s. From Birmingham’s nickname ‘Brum’ + ‘umbrella’.

  • Love the idea of the Brumbrella, Andrew. I think a lot of successful portmanteau words owe their success partly to the oral/aural pleasure they give, in addition to their neat encapsulation of a useful thing or idea.

    John, Kati: Austeritarian seems to me like a better bet than austerian because it’s more immediately decodable (whereas an Austerian could be a follower of the writer Paul Auster). At the moment austerian, coined by the financial analyst Rob Parenteau, is ahead, both on Google and in the enTenTen corpus (where it’s beating austeritarian by three citations to love.) I suspect we may be seeing more of both terms as events in the Eurozone unfold.

  • Thank you for the fantabulous suggestions Timothy and Andrew! Floordrobe, bookstorm and loobrary have officially entered our household’s vocabulary!

    And I agree with you Liz: my money is also on austeritarian. I expect a few more ‘xit’ words to come along too to join Grexit and Brexit/Brixit.

  • I’ve come to actually start using “hangry” in daily life, despite generally avoiding vogue new words on cantankerous principle.

    I have two rules for good portmanteaus. (1) I like both elements to be clearly visible in the result – merely using the first consonant of the first word does not a good portmanteau make. (2) is that the new word must genuinely be a common thing in the world that needed a name, whether it’s something that existed since time immemorial (hangriness, brunch) or something new (cranapple juice).

    By negative example, the kind of portmanteau I hate is “felfie”, a self-conscious and totally transparent farce of a word. Is a farmer selfie really–really?–a thing? And when you look at “felfie” without knowing what it is, does the “farmer” jump out at you? No and no.

    By contrast, the overlap of “angry” and “hungry” — the unusual series “ngry” — gives both elements a clear place in the sun. And hangry is something I feel two or three times a day. It’s not so clever as to be useless – it’s actually more a case of “why didn’t someone come up with that ages ago?”

    So “hangry” it is! Now, off to lunch.

  • Kati, Liz

    Yes, ‘austerian’ is clearly winning the Google Fight, but the two words needn’t be in direct competition. From the Google hits, it appears that ‘austeritarian’ is carving out a niche as a term of critique on the left whereas ‘austerian’ is much less obviously polemical – and there seems to be some red herring(?) about an Austrian School of Economics.

    The opposite end of the economic spectrum is represented by another portmanteau word: the now (sadly dated) doctrine of ‘Butskellism’ based on full employment policies and a strong welfare state. For younger readers, Butler (Tory Chancellor in the 1950s) + Gaitskell (his Labour opposite number).

    On a completely different note, this one, from a recent Private Eye, made me chortle:


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