AMF, Part IV

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Here's the latest ... might we call it a guerdon? (more nearly that than a meed, wouldn't you agree?) resulting from a treasure hunt through the Oxford English Dictionary that guest blogger Ammon Shea is conducting for the benefit of Word Fugitives readers:

James Weston, of Iowa City, writes:


"I am looking for a word to describe the somewhat nonsensical words created by adding a false suffix (e.g., '-gate' added to mean scandal, after Watergate, hence 'Troopergate'; '-aholic' added to mean dependency, after alcoholic, hence 'shopaholic')."

Ammon Shea replies:

"Depending on whether you like your terms modern or outdated, the word you are looking for is either blend or portmanteau (defined by the OED as 'A word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings').  The latter word has been in English use for quite some while - its original meaning, from the 1550s, referred to a bag or case that split into two different sections.  It acquired the new meaning from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, in which Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice how slithy means lithe + slimy: 'You see it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word.'

"Portmanteaux seem to be words that get little respect (it's easy to make fun of such recent coinages as chocoholic, nannygate, and the like), but there are many examples, such as chortle (chuckle + snort) and smog (smoke + fog), that have become fairly accepted words.

"I should mention that some lexicographers and philologists might take exception to the above explanation - in the view of some specialists a word would be considered a portmanteau or a blend only if it puts together two partial bits of words; if it is made up of a complete word and a partial word it should be referred to as a compound.  Thus, chocoholic would still be considered a portmanteau, but nannygate (with its use of the full word nanny) would properly be a compound." 
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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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