The Frankenstein’s Monster of Language: The Portmanteau
Continuing in my new tradition of regaling you, dear reader, with linguistic trivia, this blog post (just in time for Halloween!) will center on that Frankenstein’s monster of word construction: the portmanteau. Even if you’ve never heard the French term before, you’ve almost certainly heard one of these beauties in everyday conversation—they’re increasingly popular these days. Plus, they’re just plain fun.
What Is a Portmanteau?
Portmanteaus, or portmanteau words, are words in which two or more words have been combined in both sound and meaning. How am I so sure you’ve heard one of these before? They’re everywhere. That meal we eat around 11 on a nice, lazy Sunday? Brunch—it’s both breakfast and lunch. What about a friend you’ve got a particularly antagonistic relationship with; you might call him your “frenemy”, combining the sound and meaning from both “friend” and “enemy”.
These little guys are so pervasive that once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere. You might need to guesstimate how much cash you’ll need for happy hour. On a picnic, you might find yourself eating macaroni salad with a spork. You might pass a gaggle of teenagers debating the outerwear status of jeggings. (Just kidding. The people have spoken: jeggings count as pants. I’m sorry.) Now that you’re more aware of portmanteaus, you won’t be able to step out of doors without running into an ad for a Frappuccino (a frappe/cappuccino concoction from your local neighborhood coffee mega-chain).
What’s So Great About Portmanteaus, Anyway?
Okay, valid question. My obsession with words and their quirks isn’t exactly universal. That’s fair. But portmanteaus are legitimately important to language (even if not everyone is as big a fan as I am). Language isn’t static; every language evolves over time to adapt to new societal trends and technological phenomenon. With the breakneck speed of internet fads (remember the Harlem Shake? Remember rick rolling?),it’s no surprise that dictionaries are lagging behind culture—words we’ve all been using for years are only just making it into print.
For example, “McMansion” was added to the dictionary in the early 2000s, nearly a decade after it was first used to describe new-construction mini-mansions designed to cater to the nouveau riche who came into the housing market after the internet boom. Similarly, “fauxhawk” (a mohawk simulation that can be achieved with hair gel and without having to shave the rest of one’s head), “jorts” (jean shorts), and “flatform” (a flat shoe with a high, thick sole) have all only recently made their official dictionary debut, even though at least two of those have been in the common vernacular for what feels like ages. (I’m dubious about “flatform”, but I’m not noted for my fashion acumen.)
The point is, portmanteaus are a huge part of language’s changing landscape. It’s sort of like recycling; take two common words with which everyone is familiar, smash them together to get a new word, and if it makes sense (or it’s funny), you’ve got yourself a whole new word.
Even though the words we think of as portmanteaus now seem novel and quirky, they’re in very good company. Portmanteaus have been cropping up for centuries, but frequent usage has made them so familiar that they no longer seem like combined words. A good example of this is the word “smog”, which was coined over a century ago to describe the particular haze of smoke and fog drifting around London’s industrialized streets. Words like “goodbye” and “because” were once new combinations of old words (“God be with ye” and “by cause”, respectively), but have become so familiar that they no longer stand out. That’s language at its best, almost literally poetry in motion. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Didn’t You Say This Was Going to Be About Halloween?
I totally did. And I won’t disappoint: if you’ve stuck with me this far you deserve a little treat. Since ’tis the season for all the ghosts and ghoulies to go trick-or-treating, here are a few Halloween-related portmanteaus to get you excited for incessant doorbell ringing and free candy.
If you’re like me, you have at least one friend who refuses to dress up. Lame. This year, go ahead and call them what they are: “Halloweenies” (they’re being weenies about dressing up for Halloween). Planning a big bash? Let all your friends know you’re going to throw the most “spooktacular” party ever, complete with haunted house and that gross/awesome game where you blindfold the kiddos and convince them that the bowl of peeled grapes their little hands are in is actually filled with eyeballs. Ick! Whatever you do, try not to scare the little ones too badly; this “fangtastic” “boonanza” should be fun for all ages.