Portmanteau Words

Senza un’autorità prescrittiva, la creazione di nuove parole in inglese spesso è questione di ingegno e opportunità. In letteratura, tecnologia o nel mondo dello spettacolo, ecco alcuni degli esempi più noti.

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Portmanteau English Branjelina
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What do you call the meal that you have when it’s too late for breakfast and too early for lunch? ‘Brunch’ of course (breakfast + lunch)! And how do you describe a vacation in summer 2020 when you have to stay close to home? Easy! A ‘staycation’. ‘Brunch’ and ‘staycation’ are both portmanteau words — new words created by joining together parts of two existing words. English is full of them and new ones are appearing almost every day.

Getting accepted

As there’s no equivalent of the Accademia della Crusca for English, getting any word, including portmanteaus, accepted into the language is all about usage. If enough people use a word, regardless of who coined it or how it came into being, it will eventually make it into the dictionary. The most successful portmanteau words are ones that fill a real gap in the language. Three of my favourites are: ‘flexitarian’ (flexible + vegetarian), meaning a person who doesn’t eat meat... except when they do; ‘bankster’ (banker + gangster), meaning a dishonest banker; and ‘floordrobe’ (floor + wardrobe), meaning an untidy pile of clothes ‘stored’ on the floor. ‘Flexitarian’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 2014, while ‘bankster’ was added in 2015. ‘Floordrobe’ hasn’t been included yet, but if enough people use it, like the others, it will enter the language as an unfortunate sign of the times – or not! If we don’t use it, it will disappear as a more positive sign of our collective tidiness.

Topicality

In many cases, portmanteau words eventually become so common and fixed in the language that we forget they ever used to be in two parts. Take, for example, ‘motel’ (motor + hotel). In contrast, the portmanteau ‘Brangelina’ (Brad Pitt + Angelina Jolie) makes a lot less sense now than it used to, given that the couple split up in 2016. Let’s see how long ‘Kimye’ (Kim Kardashian +  West) keeps its meaning.

Portmanteau English Kimye

Innovation

In recent years, the pace of portmanteau creation has increased dramatically. This is partly due to the development in new technologies and the resulting need to describe digital versions of things that already existed. The most common of these tech portmanteau words is surely ‘email’ (electronic + mail) but there are dozens more, from ‘webinar’ (web + seminar) meaning a seminar done online, to ‘netiquette’ (network + etiquette) meaning good manners online, to ‘Wikipedia’ (wiki + encyclopedia), and of course ‘sexting’ (sex + texting). Not all portmanteau words are new, though. One of the first to become widely used in English was ‘smog’ (smoke + fog), which refers to heavy air pollution and was first used in London in the early 20th century.

Origins

Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, took great delight in blending two words into one, and he was also the first person to use the term ‘portmanteau’ to describe these composite creations. In his 1871 novel Alice Through the Looking Glass, Carroll includes a nonsense poem called ‘Jabberwocky’, which is built around words he has created. Several of these invented words are portmanteaus, for example, the adjective ‘slithy’ (slimy + lithe). Carroll’s character Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice how the word works: “You see it’s like a portmanteau” says Humpty, “—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Humpty’s line makes sense when you know that the word ‘portmanteau’ comes from the French and literally means a large leather bag with two equal sections — an appropriate term, then, for these ingenious two-part creations. Although ‘slithy’” never became widely used in English, two of Carroll’s other portmanteau words from the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ do now appear in the OED: ‘chortle’ (chuckle + snort) meaning, and ‘galumph’ (gallop + triumph), which now means to move in a heavy, noisy way.

Portmanteau English Carroll

Can they be wrong?

Although, like Carroll, we’re all free to try creating our own portmanteau words, simply mashing any two words together doesn’t make for a meaningful portmanteau. And there have been a few of these meaningless mash-ups in American politics in recent years. In 2010, Sarah Palin, the then governor of Alaska, used the word ‘refudiate’ during an interview with Fox news. ‘Repudiate’, meaning ‘to reject’, was, presumably, the word she was looking for, but somehow a bit of the word ‘refute’, meaning to show that something is incorrect, got mixed in there accidentally. The resulting ‘refudiate’ didn’t make any sense at all. But, anyone can make a mistake, right? Except that Palin used ‘refudiate’ again four days later, this time in a tweet: “Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate” [a plan to build a mosque at Ground Zero]. The meaningless new word caused such a storm in the media that the New Oxford American Dictionary chose ‘refudiate’ as their Word of the Year for 2010.

Portmanteau English

Missing the point

Former US president George W. Bush also did some strange things to the English language, inventing various new words. For example, in 2000, he told a meeting in Arkansas, “They misunderestimated me” (misunderstand + underestimate). On another occasion, he described weapons as ‘tacular’ (tactical + nuclear). Both times he took elements of two words and put them together, but did he achieve two meanings packed up into one word? Not really. I don’t think Humpty Dumpty would have approved.   

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