Portmanteaus

I have a strong and general dislike for portmanteaus – words which have “two meanings packed up into one word,” as Humpty-Dumpty tells Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

I mention this definition because it was the first use of “portmanteau” for this purpose. An origin which is particularly amusing when you consider that our egg-shaped friend was clearly bloviating and most likely invented all the definitions he elects to confer on poor Alice.

But I digress.

At the time of Carroll’s writing, a portmanteau was most commonly known in English as a suitcase which opened into two equal sections. Thus a single word such as “slithy” is a portmanteau – in Dumpty’s reckoning – between the two component words “lithe” and “slimy.”

The word comes from the French porte-manteau, from porter, to carry, and manteau, cloak.

To be clear, I don’t have a distain for all portmanteaus. A word like ‘smog’ – smoke/fog – for example, seems to be appropriate name for something we wouldn’t otherwise have a word for. It is neither smoke nor fog, but we experience it as some novel combination of the two.

Other words, such as ‘sitcom’ – situational comedy – or ‘motel’ – motor hotel – seem like reasonable abbreviations for phrases which would otherwise be antiquated and somewhat nonsensical. Fine. I will accept these into my lexicon.

But a broader persual of English portmanteaus reveals a long list of cutesy words which are not nearly as amusing as I imagine their originators think they are. Please. Just stop it.

I suppose that this is the natural course for a living language, though. People will create portmanteaus which will be trendy for a time before most fade from use altogether. The useful ones will last.

Interestingly, portmanteaus are common in languages around the world. In French, this is described through the back-translation mot-valise (‘word-suitcase’) which subsequently became Kofferwort in German. I’m not aware of a specific Japanese term for this, but its linguistically common to combine and contract words.

While I’m in no position to comment on the worthiness of portmanteaus in those languages, the broad existence of this trend in human language seems to indicate that there is something to be said for the practice of smooshing words together and seeing what comes out.

But mostly, they just annoy me.

Because usually, we don’t need a term for whatever the portmanteau intends to convey. And if we don’t need some cutesy, made-up name for some thing that may or may not even need to exist, let us, please, just stick with the real words we already have.

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