Portmanteau Words

background image 4

The English language is constantly evolving. The meanings of words drift or even change completely. Sometimes words stop being used altogether and they die out. But at the same time new words are constantly being added. 

These new words – neologisms – can be a source of some irritation to traditionalists, especially when there is already a perfectly good word that could have been used. But when neologisms work, when they fulfill a need, they can add greatly to the richness and diversity of the language. 

A particular sort of new word are those formed when two existing words are merged to form a new one whose meaning, combines that of the two root words. These are called “portmanteau” words. 

The word “portmanteau” originally meant a sort of large traveling bag. The writer Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland etc., was the first to use it to refer to a merged word. Carroll employed quite a few portmanteaux himself. The poem Jabberwocky, for example, contains the word “chortled”, probably created by combining “chuckle” and “snorted”. Similarly “mimsy” is generally taken as a mixture of “miserable” and “flimsy”. Both of these new words are now in the dictionary. For example, the OED defines chortle like this : 

chortle:  verb laugh in a breathy, gleeful way. noun a breathy, gleeful laugh. ORIGIN coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass; probably a blend of CHUCKLE and SNORT.

It’s likely that most people who use “chortle” are unaware it was a word made up in the 1870s. 

There are now very many portmanteau words that have become accepted as valid in their own right : “smog”, “brunch”, “infotainment”, “dumbfound”, “fanzine”, “genome”, “sitcom” and so forth. They key point is that the meaning of the new word is mid-way between the two original words in some way.  

Some portmanteaux are less successful. For example, it’s quite common to hear people using the ugly jargon-word “guesstimate” (or “guestimate”). This word, clearly, is a mixture of “guess” and “estimate”. But all-too often it is employed when “guess” or “estimate” would be perfectly clear and accurate. 

So should writers feel free to just invent new words? Clearly many have done in the past. Shakespeare, for example, coined a variety of new usages. Perhaps the best advice would be to stick to existing words where they work as this helps keep your writing clear. At the same time, be aware that coining a new word is a possibility. In part it depends on what you are writing.

It’s very common, for example, for reporters discussing some new scandal to form a portmanteau with the –gate suffix (i.e. as a reference to Watergate). Thus there is “Irangate”, “spygate”, “climategate” and so forth. A reader seeing one of these new words will instantly be able to grasp its meaning without its needing to be explained. If readers can’t make such an interpretation, however, they won’t know for sure what you intended by the word and your writing will suffer.

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

5 thoughts on “Portmanteau Words”

  1. I recently coined the word ratsnake in a novel I was writing, describing a snake that crawled out of the villain’s grave. There exists a “rat snake” in Florida, but it looked strange when written that way, as though I was talking about two creatures instead of one. Combined it made more sense. So even though it’s not correct, I wrote it as a combined word. Hey, if Shakespeare could do it, why can’t I?

  2. Not so much portmanteau as karmadharaya, “ratsnake”…

    (there’s another topic for a DWT post)

  3. My son, when he was a child, used the word “diangle” when explaining to me something that had been positioned on a diagonal or angle. I have since thought this would officially make a great, descriptive word!

Leave a Comment