If you enjoyed my quiz on nouning and verbing, you might like my new quiz on portmanteau words, now up on the Macmillan Dictionary site. It will test your knowledge of novel portmanteaus such as plogging, smombie, theyby, and zoodles. It’s multiple choice, so you can guess at any strange ones.
Portmanteau words are words that blend two or more others in structure and meaning, like smog (smoke + fog), brunch (breakfast + lunch), and portmonsteau (portmanteau + monster). That last one hasn’t caught on yet. They should be distinguished from compound words like teapot and seawater, which also combine words but don’t blend them.
I like a good portmanteau word, and by browsing Macmillan’s Open Dictionary (which is crowd-sourced but lexicographer-edited – this ain’t Urban Dictionary) I see a lot of shiny new ones soon after they enter circulation. Hence the portmanteau quiz. Let me know how you score.
Now follows a bit on the etymology of portmanteau, for anyone unfamiliar with it.
Portmanteau was formed in French by joining porte (porter ‘carry’ in imperative mood) to manteau ‘cloak’. Borrowed into English in the mid-16thC, it originally meant (and can still mean) a bag or case for carrying clothes or other items.
But when Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking-Glass, he applied it to words:
‘You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,’ said Alice. ‘Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called “Jabberwocky”?’
‘Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. ‘I can explain all the poems that were ever invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’
This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated 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.
‘That’s enough to begin with,’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted: ‘there are plenty of hard words there. “Brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon – the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’
‘That’ll do very well,’ said Alice: ‘and “slithy”?’
‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’
‘I see it now,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully . . .
A little later, Humpty Dumpty adds that mimsy ‘is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you)’. Carroll, via his anthropomorphic egg, was the first person to use portmanteau in this linguistic sense, and the popularity of his Alice books helped the label to stick – though linguists often call them blends instead.
Most portmanteaus, like other coinages, remain niche or simply disappear. But you never know which ones might catch on. Hangry (hungry + angry) and the related noun hanger entered my working vocabulary and that of several people I know when it did the rounds a few years ago. (The OED’s first citation for hangry, btw, is from 1956.)
Slithy and mimsy never gained much currency, but other Carroll-coined blends, like chortle, have done better. (Side note: a phrase in Carroll’s first Alice book gave this blog its name.) Carroll’s linguistic style was a curious mix of playful and rigorous; for all his inventiveness he could also be prescriptive about English usage. But then he was never one to chillax.