Word of the Day: Portmanteau

I’ve written a couple of these posts for work, but thought that others might like to read them, too.

Good morning!

Let’s try something different today to bring everyone a little closer together. Let’s talk about words.

With all the talk recently about telework, I’ve been thinking about the word portmanteau, which is today’s Word-of-the-Day.

What is a portmanteau? As my friend Jay would say: “I’m glad you asked.”

Portmanteau (pôrtˈmantō): Noun. A word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings. Also, more generally: a term or phrase which encompasses two or more meanings.

If you had brunch recently, you took part in a portmanteau (of the words breakfast and lunch, of course). If you’ve stayed in a motel, you stayed in a motor + hotel. Do you watch Netflix? That means you probably like Internet + flicks. How about Velcro? This one’s a little obscure, but every time you tear open Velcro, you’re actually using a portmanteau of the words velours (which is French for velvet) + crochet. Who knew?

So when and where did we start using the word portmanteau, which is actually a type of suitcase, to refer to new words made by jamming old words together?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Lewis Carroll gave us the word in the wonderfully weird little book Through the Looking-Glass, when Alice (whom you probably know from her trip to Wonderland)asks Humpty-Dumpty to explain the meaning of a poem. Here’s the first verse:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Like me, Alice is puzzled by this nonsense. Thankfully, Humpty-Dumpty is able to explain part of it. “Well, ‘slithy‘ means ‘lithe and slimy’,” he explains: “’Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

And with that, Lewis Carroll invented a new word. How about you? Can you think of any portmanteaus?

Through the Looking-Glass - Chapter 6
Humpty on his wall

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