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Portmanteaus deconstructed: a guide to blended words

Humpty Dumpty Sitting on a Wall, illustration by Milo Winter, 1916. Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images - Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

PETER TRUDGILL tackles a burning issue that has been prompting debate among readers.

The word portmanteau refers to a largish travelling bag which opens up into two equal parts. The word was originally borrowed into English from French; and for that reason it was sometimes pluralised as portmanteaux rather than portmanteaus. But it first arrived in English in about 1500 and, during the more than 500 years since then, it has been thoroughly anglicised in speech and is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. It has also appeared with the more obviously anglicised spelling of portmantle.

Portmanteau comes from the French word porter, ‘to carry’, plus manteau, ‘coat’; and in its earliest English meaning it referred to the person whose task it was to carry the mantle of some dignitary who was too important to carry it themselves. (Mantle was itself a borrowing of manteau from its earlier French form mantel.) But by 1580 or so portmanteau had come to mean a carrying case for a coat or cloak, with the case typically being dividable into two equal halves so that it could be folded over.

The readers of this newspaper are an erudite bunch, and some of them have been asking, on the letters’ page, about the term portmanteau as applied to words. This was a usage which was first coined by Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Charles Dodgson) in his 1871 book Through the Looking Glass. His character Humpty Dumpty explains that ‘slithy means ‘lithe and slimy’. It’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word’; and ‘mimsy is flimsy and miserable (there’s another portmanteau for you)’. So Dodgson coined both the term, and some of the earliest words which are examples of it.

Slithy and mimsy were of course words which Dodgson had invented. But this is necessarily the case with portmanteau words: somebody has sat down and quite deliberately come up with a new word, which they have formed by blending together and overlapping the sounds and spellings from the truncated forms of two different words, and combining their meanings. So this is not the same process as compounding, where two entire words are combined, as in matchbox, suitcase, or milk-bottle.

Portmanteau words coalesce both the forms and the meanings of two words into one: in motel, a portmanteau word originally used in the USA in the 1920s, the end of motor and the beginning of hotel have gone missing, and clever advantage has been taken of the fact that both words contain the sequence -ot-.

The portmanteau skort, a blending of skirt and shorts which dates back to 1957, refers to a pair of shorts with a flap across the front to make it look like a skirt, and skilfully utilises the double overlap of the sk- and the -rt.

Some portmanteau words have become so much part of our vocabulary that we are hardly aware they are inventions. Smog, from smoke plus fog, was invented by a Dr. H. A. Des Vœux, and first used by him at a public-health conference in 1905. But the first time this word made an appearance in print without inverted commas – signalling widespread familiarity – was in the 1950s. Modem, a term which arrived in about 1960, is a blend of modulator and demodulator. Moped, from motor and pedal, first appeared in Swedish in 1952, but came into English soon afterwards, probably via German: one German term for a portmanteau word is Kofferwort , ‘suitcase word’.

Lewis Carroll was not the first author to introduce portmanteau words into his writing. The French writer Rabelais (c.1490-1553) invented the term sorbonnagre, by combining Sorbonne (the university) and onagre, ‘donkey’, to refer to scholars who retained outdated and narrow-minded points of view.

A word like this can be called mot-valise in French, where mot is ‘word’ and valise, ‘suitcase’. One modern French example is courriel, ’email’, which is a merging of courrier and électronique.

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