Episode 286: July 28, 2011
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I don’t know whether they’re actually becoming more common or if I’m just noticing them more lately, but it seems as if I’m seeing portmanteau words everywhere. It came to a head last week when I went out to lunch and the restaurant was serving “broasted chicken.”
Portmanteaus are words that combine two parts of other words to make something new. They’re also sometimes called blends. Portmanteau words are delights such as “spork” (a combination of "spoon" and "fork"), “Brangelina” (a combination of "Brad" and "Angelina"), and “smog” (a combination of "smoke" and "fog").
I thought the restaurant had made up “broasted” on the fly and that it was some weird combination of “broiled” and “roasted,” although the chicken looked fried.
I took a picture of the label and posted it on Twitter, where my friends subsequently informed me that Broasting is a trademarked term of the Broasting Company, which makes an appliance that cooks chicken with a combination of pressure cooking and deep frying. It’s not new; it originated in the 1950s, and it’s apparently delicious and popular in the Midwest.
I’ve also been noticing the blend of “hacker” and “activist”--“hacktivist”--a lot lately because of the news stories about Lulzsec and Anonymous. I hadn’t heard “hacktivist,” but the Oxford English Dictionary says it goes back to 1995.
Even one that I was sure was new--“carmageddon,” which newscasters were using to describe the closure of Interstate 405 for construction in Los Angeles--has been around since the 90s. It was the name of a car-driving video game.
Photo: nwhorselady at Flickr, BY-NC-ND 2.0
I’ve heard linguists say that many of the language quirks people think are new are actually quite old, and it seems as if all my recently noticed portmanteaus are good examples.
Finally, the cutest portmanteau of all has to be the puggle, a dog breed that is a cross between a pug and a beagle. Again, it’s been around for a while, since the 1980s.
"Portmanteau" is French (itself a portmanteau word) for a type of suitcase that opens into two parts. Lewis Carroll assigned "portmanteau" its newer linguistic meaning in his book Alice Through the Looking Glass.
One of my favorite parts of Through the Looking Glass is the following section in which Carroll may have been the first person to use the word “pretend” to mean children playing make believe. I like it because Alice is having the kind of usage argument that I hear all the time. Here’s Alice talking to her sister, Kitty:
“Kitty, dear, let's pretend -- ' And here I wish I could tell you half the things Alice used to say, beginning with her favorite phrase `Let's pretend.' She had had quite a long argument with her sister only the day before -- all because Alice had begun with `Let's pretend we're kings and queens’; and her sister, who liked being very exact, had argued that they couldn't, because there were only two of them, and Alice had been reduced at last to say, `Well, you can be one of them then, and I'll be all the rest.’”
Alice is clearly a language liberal whereas Kitty is a conservative.
Besides assigning new meanings to words and making words take new forms, Carroll also liked to invent words. “Jabberwocky” for example is a nonsense poem that first appeared in Through the Looking Glass. That it's a nonsense poem means that it contains a lot of made up words including another portmanteau: “mimsy” a blend of “miserable” and “flimsy.”
In the book, Humpty Dumpty explains the origin of “portmanteau,” which comes from the name for a suitcase with two parts. Humpty Dumpty says “You see it's like a portmanteau--there are two meanings packed up into one word."
Humpty Dumpty also makes other language commentary, for example, he says, “They've a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they're the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs!”
So the next time you hear a portmanteau or make one up yourself, remember Lewis Carroll, Humpty Dumpty, and Alice Through the Looking Glass.
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