Commentary: Portmanteau Words | KERA News

Commentary: Portmanteau Words

Dallas, TX –

A friend once joked that he resented my "insinuendo." That word "insinuendo," which combines insinuate and innuendo, is called a "portmanteau" word that is, one that fuses two words into a new word.

The word "portmanteau" is itself a blend of two words. A portmanteau was a large leather suitcase that opened into two compartments. Its name came from the French porter, meaning to carry, and manteau, meaning cloak. In Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty likens the word "slithy" to a portmanteau because it contains both lithe and slimy.

Another Lewis Carroll creation was the word "chortle," which combines chuckle and snort. Other such words are "blurt," from blow and spurt; "brash," from bold and rash; "twiddle," from twist and fiddle; "flurry," from flutter and hurry; and "hassle," from haggle and tussle. "Chump" comes from chunk and lump, and "prissy" from prim and sissy.

Goodbye is an old portmanteau word that blends God and be and ye, and means "God be with ye."

English has hundreds of portmanteau words many of which we recognize as blends. "Guesstimate" is well recognized as a blend of guess and estimate, for example. "Brunch," which fuses breakfast and lunch, is another easily recognized portmanteau word. Most of us remember that "smog" combines smoke and fog, and that "fortnight" comes from fourteen and nights.

But we often don't recognize the combined forms of many portmanteau words. Electrocute is one of those. We may be surprised to learn that it's a blend of electronic and execute. The word "motel" is so commonplace that we've forgotten it was not so long ago a lively newcomer created from the words motor and hotel. And we may already be forgetting that "Internet" blends international and network, "blog" combines web and log, and "modem" fuses modulator and demodulator.

"Gerrymander" is an interesting portmanteau word. It blends Gerry with salamander. The term means to divide an area into election districts that favor one political party which may result in districts with crazy shapes. In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry approved districts so fantastically shaped that one was likened to a salamander. And the word Gerrymander was born. The governor's name was spelled G-e-r-r-y but pronounced "Gary," so gerrymander was originally pronounced "Gary-mander."

Glimmer and glitz are lovely portmanteau words. Glimmer blends gleam and shimmer, and glitz fuses glamour and ritz. But there are ugly portmanteau words, too. "Flabbergast," useful as it is, is not the prettiest word in the world. It comes from flabby and aghast. "Goon" is a great creation; it comes from gorilla and baboon. And "skuzzy" is a blend of scum and lousy. "Humongous," a homely blend of huge and monstrous, is firmly ensconced in the language. "Ginormous" is an ugly newcomer, just now catching on, which combines giant with enormous.

Maybe we can create our own portmanteau word. We could call these uglier creations "frankenwords."

Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

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