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An American love of efficiency and novelty: explaining portmanteau and other combined words

By Curtis Honeycutt

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we Americans love efficiency. We also become enamored with novelty — new things entertain us until there’s a new shiny object that tickles our fancy. When you put these two things together, you get the Segway. A Segway is a two-wheeled scooter first introduced to the public in 2001 as a revolutionary personal transport vehicle. It combined our love of being efficient (walking is hard) with our admiration of novelty (Look! Spinning wheels!). Although the Segway is still very much a thing, when most people think of the invention now, they probably think of dorky tourists and/or mall cops.

Now I’ll segue into the grammar portion of today’s article. See what I did there?

The language equivalent of efficiency-meets-novelty is the portmanteau. I’ll admit: when I first heard this word, I could’ve sworn it was a rustic wine village in the South of France. Portmanteau is a French word originally meaning “suitcase.” However, author Lewis Carroll introduces a new meaning for the word “portmanteau” in his book, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that new words made from two words being smashed together – like “slithy” (slimy + lithy) and “mimsy” (miserable + flimsy) – are “like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.

I should note that “portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau: it combines the French words “porter” (to carry) and “manteau” (a cloak).

Why do I care to teach you about a French word that was redefined by a 19th century British author? Portmanteaus are fantastic, and they combine efficiency and novelty so well. The following are some of my favorite portmanteaus, which were all invented by someone who wanted to be cute and concise. You’ll find all these words, by the way, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: chillax (chill + relax), skort (skirt + shorts), smog (smoke + fog), turducken (turkey + duck + chicken), glamping (glamour + camping), bromance (brother + romance), ginormous (gigantic + enormous) and flare (flame + glare). Portmanteaus are everywhere, and they’re fantastic.

How about some new portmanteaus? I’ll offer up a few: flarf (a flag that can become a scarf), phowner (a person who owns a phone), roboat (a robot boat), and singull (a seagull that isn’t in a romantic relationship). Perhaps creating a portmanteau that catches on is tougher than it seems. Inventing new words from existing words is fun. It keeps our language alive and vibrant. Send me an email or a tweet with any portmanteaus you create.

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.

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