Unmapped Words: Portmanteaus

by Angela Tung on June 20, 2011

Wordnik’s motto is “All the words, and everything about them, for everybody,” and when we say “all the words,” we mean all the words, especially the ones that aren’t included in traditional dictionaries — words that have been left off the previous maps of English.  Today we’re taking a look at portmanteaus.

Portmanteau originally meant “a case used in journeying for containing clothing: originally adapted to the saddle of a horseman, and therefore nearly cylindrical and of flexible make.” Now it’s also come to refer to a word “made by combining two words, stories, etc, in the manner of a linguistic portmanteau.” Portmanteau words are also known as blends.

Lewis Carroll was the first to use the word in this sense in Through the Looking Glass, in which “Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the coinage of the unusual words in Jabberwocky, where ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ and ‘mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable’.”  Humpty Dumpty says, “You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Some portmanteaus have become so common, one could argue that we’ve forgotten their origins entirely.  There’s bit, a blend of binary and digit.  There’s bodacious, a combination of bold and audacious.  Lewis Carroll coined chortle, part chuckle, part snort.  The pixel, which we all know is “one of the tiny dots that make up the representation of an image in a computer’s memory,” as well as the name of a very famous movie company, originated as a portmanteau of picture and element.

In addition to bit and pixel, there are innumerable technology-related blends.  Blogosphere, emoticon, malware, and netiquette are just a few.  On the more scandalous side, there’s sexting and, as spotted recently by Word Spy, twimmolation, a blend of Twitter and immolation, which means “the destruction of a person’s career or reputation caused by lewd or insensitive Twitter posts.”

Then there’s literal cross-breeding.  What do you get when you cross a labrador and a poodle?  A labradoodle of course.  How about a tangerine and a pumelo, or grapefruit?  A tangelo.  What happens when you smash together a turkey, duck, and chicken? You get a turducken (and perhaps a stomachache). Do we have lists for crossed animals and fruits? Of course we do. In fact we have two.

Let’s not forget celebrity portmanteaus, the manifestation of romantic, sometimes short-lived, unions.  There’s Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, then Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner);TomKat (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes); and of course Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie).

Just recently, in the world of bromance, we learned of bronies, adult fanboys of My Little Pony, and brogramming (thanks @1lenore!), the art of programming with one’s “bros” (what, no girl programmers allowed?).  From Word Spy we learned about the nocturnist, a blend of nocturnal and internist, “a physician who cares for other doctors’ patients overnight,” and from linguistics expert (linguexpert?) Arnold Zwicky, we read about the mathemagician, a mathematician who also happens to be a magician; viewmongous, a blend of view and humungous, implying a humungous view of a television; muderabilia, memorabilia related to murders or murderers; and Newtiny, which refers to the recent mutiny of Newt Gringrich’s presidential campaign staff.

Come across any new blends yourself? Tweet it and tag it #unmappedwords or #unmapw.  Look up it on Wordnik and add your definition in the comments or “discuss” section.  Tag it portmanteau or blend. Make a list. Who knows?  Maybe eventually we can map the whole language, and no word will languish “off the map”.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: