Don’t know what a portmanteau is? If you have heard of the words brunch, blog and pixel, then yes, you know portmanteaus (just not what they are). Portmanteaus, in the literary sense is a word that is created by merging two different words (and their meanings) to form a new word e.g. breakfast and lunch to make brunch, web and log to make (weblog which eventually became just) blog, and picture and element to make pixel.
You can find it when a new celebrity couple forms (brangelina, bennifer, merkozy) or when biologists and movie-makers have given up on names for interspecies lovechildren – real (liger, zonkey) or fictional (sharktopus). In this post, we’re going to dive into the world of portmanteaus (that last bit is pronounced –toe, if you’re wondering).
Origins and Meaning
So a portmanteau is formed from two french words, “porter” which means carry and “manteau” which means mantle – a mantle is a cloak, the kind Anna wore in Frozen, or if you are a more traditionalist fairy tale lover, what Red Riding Hood wore en route to grandma’s house (to be honest, I’ve always thought it was a cape but I digress). A manteau is more of a clothes valet, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Put them together and you use portmanteau to refer to travelling bags or suitcases (because they carry your cloaks around?) only these bags are old-fashioned, made from leather and can open into compartments. Here are some examples.
It is from this definition that we get portmanteaus as a literary device (something you use in writing). For that you can thank Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. He made up quite a few words in Jabberwocky, a poem he wrote, and one we might have a hard time understanding. Here’s a snippet.
In one of Carrolls books, Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explained away to Alice the weird words inside the poem as portmanteaus. To be more precise:
“it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
Fun fact: portmanteau itself is a portmanteau. Second fun fact: movies can be portmanteaus too, for instance Pulp Fiction, Crash, Cloud Atlas – it’s basically a movie that is made up of several short stories linked together one way or another.
It’s pretty common to see portmanteaus used in the tech industry, notably on tech sites. Here are just a few off the top of my head:
- email = electronic + mail
- emoticon = emotions + icons
- alphanumeric = alphabetic + numberic
- favicon = favorite + icon
- phablet = phone + tablet
- netizen = Internet + citizen
- podcast = iPod + broadcast
- freeware = free + software
- malware = malicious + software
- webisode = web + episode
- Wifi = wireless + fidelity
- mobisode = mobile + episode
- webinar = web + seminar
- netiquette = Internet + etiquette
- wikipedia = wiki + encyclopedia
- Yelp = Yellow pages + help
Outside of tech terms, you find these gems:
- smog = smoke and fog
- breathalyzer = breath + analyzer
- frankenfood = frankenstein + food
- bromance = brother + romance
- shopaholic = shop + alcoholic
- romcom = romance + comedy
- brunch = breakfast + lunch
- frenemy = friend + enemy
- ginormous = gigantic + enormous
- chillax = chill + relax
- bollywood = bombay + hollywood
- mockumentary = mock + documentary
Portmanteaus aren’t a new creation. Jabberwocky was published in 1871, more than 140 years ago, and there are plenty of portmanteaus hiding in plain sight, like:
- sitcom = situational + comedy
- clasp = clutch + grasp
- splatter = splash + spatter
- electrocute = electric + execute
- biopic = biography + picture
- avionics = aviation + electronics
- Velcro = velvet + crochet (small hook in french)
- metrosexual = metropolitan + heterosexual
- cyborg = cybernetic + organism
- Spam = spiced + ham
- snark = snide + remark
- taxicab = taximeter (tax) + cabriolet (carriage)
Just for fun, let’s look at a few portmanteaus that you probably have come across in recent years on social media or in the news. Here are 10.
Gerrymandering (Gerry + Salamander)
Back in the 1800’s, a Governor by the name of Elbridge Gerry redrew districts in Massachusetts to his political benefit. One of the districts redrawn resembled a salamander. Today the word “gerrymandering ” usually pops up near election time – here it is illustrated.
Affluenza (Affluence + Influenza)
For a look into understanding what affluenza means, look no further than into the curious case of Ethan Couch. At 16, Couch, under the influence of drugs an alcohol, killed 4 people in a terrible car crash.
At the trial, a psychologist testified that Couch suffers from affluenza – his parents taught him that wealth buys privilege – and therefore cannot be held accountable for his “bad behavior”. Couch was sentence to a rehabilitation facility instead of jailtime. The public went nuts.
Hangry (Hungry + Angry)
If a person becomes short-tempered or easily angered when they are hungry, that’s what hangry is. The cause behind it goes back to the blood glucose level inside your body. When it becomes too low, the brain perceives this as a life-threatening situation, and finds it hard to concentrate, carry out easy tasks, or be sociable.
Hazmat (Hazardous + Material)
You might know hazmat suits from TV (see: Breaking Bad) but in reality, hazmat suits allow medical teams to save lives in the middle of viral outbreaks like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Afric – that is, if the health workers don’t get contaminated with the virus when they strip down from their protective gear. The outbreak spurred a need for better designed hazmat suits, including this new suit design.
Listicle (List + Article)
It isn’t hard to guess what a listicle is. Basically it’s an article written in the form of a list, a common format many sites like ours adopt. No, this format does not belong to Buzzfeed. No, it isn’t easier to write. No, it isn’t just for a younger audience. Many aspects of the listicle has been discussed by sites like Wired and the Guardian on more than one occasion. But for us: we just like numbering our points.
Mobilegeddon (Mobile + Armageddon)
Everytime Google launches an algo-update, anyone with a website would lie in wake for the aftershock. Sometimes it takes a while for us to feel it. Mobilegeddon refers to the after effects of Google changing the rules of page ranking, this time giving sites that are mobile-friendly a leg up in search engine rankings. Read about this in our post here.
Cosplay (Costume + Play)
If you don’t know what cosplay is, you’re missing out. Imagine dressing up as a character from your favorite TV shows, animated feature, films, manga or anime and that’s cosplay. If you need examples, go here and here.
Sexting (Sex + Texting)
Sexting is texting with sexually explicit content, either photos, text messages or other forms of multimedia. It’s also your right, says Edward Snowden, and something he is trying to defend with his expose of the NSA’s seedy modus operandi.
Twerk (Twist + Jerk)
I’m sure by now you know what twerking is, but I’m sure you didn’t know that the word “twerk” dates back to the 1800’s and was originally spelled twirk instead. The switch from i to e only took effect in 1901, but many supposed that twerking only took off in this decade after Miley Cyrus reintroduced us to it during the 2013 MTV awards .
Slacktivist (Slacker + Activist)
Are you a slacktivist? Have you ever liked a post, lend your signature to an online petition for one cause or another, shared a post to spread awareness, changed your profile picture into something supportive of a cause as a sign of solidarity? Congrats, you’re a slacktivist, someone who tries to do good without much involvement or without getting out of their chair.
Understandably, there are plenty more portmanteaus out there which didn’t really take off (or maybe haven’t is the word), otherwise, you would see more of them in common use, such as jeggings from jeans and leggings, coopetition from cooperation + competition and staycation from stay and vacation (or in other words, bumming at home).
Now, if only we could use funfair in the same manner as fugly.
This list is not exhaustive, which means this is your chance to tell us what your favorite portmanteaus are.