What do Brexit and Brangelina have in common? Despite the fact that both are now heading towards a drawn-out divorce, linguistically the two terms perform a union – a union of two words, known as a ‘blend word’ or ‘portmanteau’. For better or worse, Britain + Exit and Brad + Angelina will be eternally etched in our brains in their respectively intertwined states.
Unlike a compound word, which simply joins two words together (e.g. proofreader), a portmanteau combines elements of each word to form a new one that merges their meanings (e.g. romcom from romantic + comedy; staycation from stay + vacation etc.). In the animal kingdom, it can refer to a more literal combination, such as a labradoodle or a liger.
Portmanteau derives from French and means a suitcase made up of two parts. Appropriately, it is made of two words: porter (to carry) and manteau (coat). Its word-related definition was first coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1871. As Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ … You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
So are portmanteaus about being whimsical or economical with language? Or are they … whimsinomical?! (You read that here first.)
Some portmanteaus are so ingrained in our consciousness that they barely register as such.
For instance: sending your friend an email (electronic + mail) inviting her to brunch (breakfast + lunch) in a fortnight (fourteen + night*) at that nice gastropub (gastronomy + public house) sounds pretty run of the mill compared to:
feeling hangry (hungry + angry) because you ordered the tofurkey (tofu + turkey) from the flexitarian (flexible vegetarian) menu just so you could fit into your fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous) jeggings (jeans + leggings) that are lying around on your floordrobe (floor + wardrobe).
You can check out the ginormous list of portmanteaus on Wikipedia (which, incidentally, is a portmanteau of ‘wiki’ – meaning ‘quick’ in Hawaiian – and encyclopaedia).
And if you really want a chortle (chuckle + snort © Lewis Carroll again), you can have a go at creating your own here.
*Deriving from the Old English word féowertýne niht.