Now We're Just Making Stuff Up: A Guide to the Rise of the Portmanteau

It has come to our attention that there is a new habit we have been speedily, decadently embracing with regard to our words. We'll call it portmanteauing

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It has come to our attention that there is a new habit we have been speedily, decadently embracing with regard to our words. A portmanteau, of course, is a large suitcase, or, alternatively, via Merriam-Webster, "a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms." Examples include smog, a combination of smoke and fog, or chillax, from chill and relaxEmoticon, for instance, is a portmanteau of emotion and icon. Or consider these: Skort, craptastic, spork, frenemy, gaydar, meme-ories, jeggings, feminazi, brunch, and even motel. A list of 25 favorites is here, via Daily Writing tips, but portmanteaus are born daily. They are endless. (Note: To be a real portmanteau, the new word needs to combine both meaning and form, otherwise it's just word-smooshing, which, in fairness, is fun, too.)

The first known use of the word portmanteau appeared in the 1500s, and that was its original meaning, as a suitcase. Nowadays it's gotten so we portmanteau fast and loose, freeform, combining words willy-nilly that sometimes turn out to not be technically portmanteaus at all. (We like to call those badmanteaus.) We portmanteau the couplings of our public figures (TomKat, Brangelina, Romyan) and sometimes even individual celebrity names (ScarJo), plus quite a lot of dog breeds (puggle, dorgi, goldendoodle). We do it with words that convey how we feel (fantabulous), what we do (take Amtrak, go glamping), where we are (Calexico!), where we're headed (the Flora-Bama Lounge), things we fight for or against (Obamacare), and things we use—Gmail, of course, is a portmanteau. We do it with our voices, in writing, with our Tumblrs (see: Natalie Portmanteau), on Twitter, as we text message. It's a way of abbreviating as we play with language in an irreverent way; it also shows the world how clever and with it we truly are. (Clevithit? Naw.) It's a grammatical meme, a grammeme. And since we're calling it a meme, let's go ahead and dub it portmanteauing. If you do it in Portland, you can call it Portlandteauing.

People have been portmanteauing for years—watch this clip in which Satan and Jesus discuss how one should properly "smoosh words" (Discuss: Is the purpose to shorten or to have fun?). The first use of this kind of "smooshing of words together" comes from Lewis Carroll, who put it in a conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, published in 1871. Here's what happened when "the evolution of the word portmanteau to include both ‘suitcase’ and ‘linguistic blend’ was first introduced," via Oxford Dictionaries:

Confused and lost as she usually is, Alice approaches Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass to ask him to elucidate the meaning of the nonsensical Jabberwocky poem. She wants to know what the words ‘slithy’ and ‘mimsy’ mean.  Humpty Dumpty replies:

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.

Later, he adds, "'MIMSY' is 'flimsy and miserable' (there's another portmanteau for you). And a 'BOROGOVE' is a thing shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round -- something like a live mop.'" Carroll wrote in his introduction to the nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, "Humpty Dumpty's theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all. For instance, take the two words 'fuming' and 'furious.' Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first ... if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say 'frumious.'"

We can thank Carroll for our modern usage, but the speed and dedication to the cause that appears to have surged in recent times is all on us. Blame this on the Internet and the proliferation of the hilarious #hashtag, plus the way that a portmanteau can exist as a witty retort to nearly anything but isn't generally offensive or abrasive. Nor does it task the creator of the portmanteau too troublingly. You can nearly automate this stuff! Portmantautomate! And it's funny. Recently, for example, it was suggested that we portmanteau humble and able to the portmanteau humable. Also recently, this writer was guilty of asking, via Twitter, if the combination of the words drunk and hungry should portmanteau to drungry or hunk. Responses were varied, and there were some additional suggestions as well, like hundrangry for hungry, drunk, and angry. We are Team Drungry, for the record.

Maybe you're not quite on board with portmanteauing. Here's how you do it.

1. Take a word. Take another. Ex.: barf and Rice-A-Roni

2. Split them each in, roughly, in reusable parts (with a one-syllable word you may keep the entire word, or, perhaps, just the first letter). Ex. barf and Rice and A and Roni

3. Combine two of the more recognizable portions of each in a way that sounds amusing and gets your point across, at least vaguely. Or simply that that sounds amusing. Ex. barf-A-Roni or, simply, barfaroni. This is an especially good one as it's evocative of another food portmanteau, Beefaroni. 

4. Ask: Does your new word have a new meaning that combines the meanings of the original words?

5. If yes, congratulate yourself. You've portmanteaued.

Easy, right? There aren't any real rules in this game, except that we agree with Jesus in the clip above, you should have fun with it. So, go forth and portmantopulate.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.