Sunday, 6 April 2008


I don’t like portmanteaux. I know there are many other matters which, it can be argued with some justification, are worth getting exercised about (sorry for the dangling preposition): Greenhouse gases, America’s ill-advised incursion in Iraq, unfair cast-system in India, unfair class-system in Britain, rise of ‘Islamism’ in some of the Islamic countries, anarchy in Congo, tigers getting on the verge of extinction, decline of Indian hockey and English cricket, trains not running on time, asylum-seekers demanding health care on the NHS, disappearance of the White working class in Britain, Homosexuals being allowed to marry, kids haring up all night on their mini-bikes disturbing neighbourhoods, fat women wearing hipsters, pizzas getting smaller in size, seventeen year olds yelling about how painful life is on ‘Top of the Pops’, young men and women with no discernible talent other than a willingness to show their private parts and ignorance on live programmes on national television becoming Z-list celebrities, and P-listed celebrities (presenters of television programmes) releasing DVDs of aerobics following childbirth purportedly to show how they managed to reduce their fat guts. But I get exercised about portmanteaux. You may want to point out, and some have done it, that I should get out more; that such concerns of the White Shoes should, and ought to, be ignored; that my life is either so empty or stress-free (or both) that I can think of no better subject than a silly morpheme few know and fewer care about (the dangling preposition, again; I can’t help it).

I should clarify at the outset, to avoid confusion, that by portmanteau, I mean portmanteau words and not a leather suitcase which opens into two hinged compartments. I have nothing against suitcases—coriaceous or un-coriaceous, hinged or unhinged. Indeed, when I travel I frequently take with me one or more hinged capacious suitcases to bring back cheap wine bottles, which, so that they don’t break in the travel, I wrap in underwear and socks. It is the portmanteau words that get my goat.

I am a reasonable man. I am not against all portmanteaux. I am not advocating a blanket ban on them. I am pleading for some perspective here. There are a few portmanteaux which, I agree, have become an integral part of our lexicon. Brunch, for example, or Workaholic, or motel. Workaholic is an interesting portmanteau. It is cobbled together from two words—‘Work’ and ‘Alcoholic’—to describe someone who is devoted to his work, for whom work takes primacy over everything else. You might even say that for a workaholic work has become an addiction—he has developed a compulsion to work (I am happy to announce that I am totally free of this affliction). However there is a subtle difference between the connotations of the two words. The word ‘Alcoholic’ is frequently said to convey disapprobation, which is not always the case with Workaholic, which, I have seen—or heard—or both—people using with a degree of admiration or envy, even. Linked to it is the portmanteau ‘Workaholism’, which I have seen being used in some magazines. Franchement! (As I have been told the French say to express their exasperation. If you find it too soi-distant, you can shrug your shoulders and exclaim ‘Puff!’) There are a few portmanteaux, which, like Workaholic, have found their niches: Bollywood, for example, made from Bombay (the capital of Indian film-making) and Hollywood, although, as Bombay has been renamed Mumbai, it should be Mullywood, or Mumliwood. Fanzine (Fan + Magazine), Camcorder (Camera + Recorder), Breathalyzer (Breath + Analyzer), Paratroops (Parachutes + Troops), Oxbridge (Oxford + Cambridge), Electrocute (Elctricity + Execute), Sexploitation (Sex + Exploitation) and Blaxploitation (Black + Exploitation) are a few portmanteaux that are so commonly used that we have ceased to think of them as such. Then there are portmanteaux such as Spanglish (Spanish + English) and Hinglish (Hindi + English), which are increasingly used to describe the influence of languages such as Spanish and Hindi on the English spoken by Indians and Latin Americans.

It can be argued that Workaholic serves some purpose in that it conveys a concept, albeit inelegantly, in one word and for which no synonym exists. Can one explain to me the point of portmanteaux such as Ginormous? This ugly word is gaining currency at a worrying speed. It is a blend of the words ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Enormous’. Now ‘Gigantic’ means something very large and extensive; and ‘Enormous’ means . . .err . . .exactly the same: something great in size. So what exactly is conveyed by ‘Ginormous’? When I asked this question to a colleague of mine he said that Ginormous is used to describe something that is way, way, off the scale in terms of size. When I pointed out to him that that is exactly what both the words mean—something that is outside of the normal range—he said that I was a pedant and that it was time I should concern myself with real issues such as third world poverty or what I could do to help the company achieve its vision (which would also enhance my chances of getting a promotion). Fantabulous is a silly portmanteau. This bastard word is created by forcing ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Fabulous’ to sleep with (or, to be more precise, on, or below) each other. ‘Fantastic’, in its adjectival form is used to describe something (or someone) that is ‘wondrous’, ‘superb’, or ‘remarkable’, especially when one wants to be appreciative, or ‘existing only in fantasy’, or ‘extravagant’. ‘Fabulous’ is used to describe something that is—you have guessed it—‘superb’, and ‘wondrous’—that is ‘fantastic’—or, occasionally to describe something that is ‘barely credible’ or ‘astonishing’. So when I hear people describing the ice-creams they are eating or some films they have watched or a song they have heard as fantabulous, I wonder wheteher they are ignorant of the meanings of these words, or the ice-cream (‘Ben & Jerry Chockchips (another portmanteau, damn it!’)) is so good and heavenly tasting to be barely credible. Gusstimate, apparently in circulation since the mid-nineteen thirties, is another unprofitable portmanteau. What possible purpose can be served by bringing together two words which have essentially the same meaning? It is a bit like Prince Charles’s sex appeal, or opening a school in Bronx: what’s the point?

It was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, that eccentric Victorian better known as Lewis Carroll, who used the French word to describe blending of different words, in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, although he was not the first one to create new words by blending existing words. Herman Melville, in 1849, coined the derogatory Snivelization from ‘Snivel’ and ‘Civilisation’; and Anecdotage (Anecdote + Dottage), suggesting garrulous old age, was recorded in the 1820s. Carroll was clever, it has to be said, in his choice of the word that is itself a ‘portmanteau’ (Is it a double metaphor? I am not sure). In his famous non-sensical poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which featured in ‘Through Looking Glass’, Carroll disambiguated, and, in the process, coined several, what were at the time, neologisms, some or more of which have found their way into the English language. Carroll would, no doubt, allow himself a chortle to find that the portmanteau he first invented, a blend of the words ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’, is still in wide use. Galumph is another word, first used by Carroll in ‘Jabberwocky’, which is still used, though not quite in the way Carroll meant it. I have, on occasions, come across Frabjous, a word Carroll first invented, and is apparently a combination of words ‘fair’, ‘fabulous’, and ‘joyous’. Finally, there is Vorpal, mercifully not used very often these days but you can find it in the dictionary, which means ‘sharp’ or ‘deadly’. Why these words entered the language, and not Frumious, which, as Carroll helpfully pointed out, was the combination of the words ‘Fuming’ and ‘Furious’, is a mystery. Old Carroll was probably having just a bit of fun when he wrote ‘Jabberwocky’, and was perhaps himself unsure of meanings and pronunciations of many of the words, all portmanteaux, in ‘Jabberwocky’, but, when the book and the poem became popular—the poem is taught in most primary schools— felt obliged to give explanations of what some or more of them meant and were pronounced. Much later Martin Gardner, in ‘Annotated Alice’, attempted an extended analysis of the poem and, by extension, all of its neologisms, which took the whole thing, as they say, a bit far.

There are websites devoted to portmanteaux where people are exhorted to tap their creative potential (!) and contribute portmanteaux. Some websites helpfully provide random pairing of adjectives and nouns, verbs and adverbs to encourage people to come up with fantastic (as in bizarre and strange) portmanteaux. Here is a list of some of the portmanteaux I have come across, which are so silly they are not worth commenting on:

Picture + Dictionary = Pictionary
Brad (Pitt) + Angelina (Jolie) = Brangelina
Cyberspace + Magazine = Cyberzine
Education + Entertainment = Edutainment
Talk + Marathon = Talkathon
Telephone + Marathon = Telethon
Beef + Buffalo = Beefalo
Clam + Tomato = Clamato
Plum + Apricot = Pluot
Cafeteria + Auditorium = Cafetorium
Man + Fantastic = Mantastic
Bad + Advantage = Badvantage
Animal + Male = Animale (why not Manimal?)
Begin + Initiate = Beginitiate
Brain + Intelligence = Braintelligence
Clap + Applause = Clapplause
Dream + Ambition = Dreambition
Derriere + Rear = Derrierear
Head + Administrator = Headministrator
Head + Adversary = Headversary
Hint + Intimate = Hintimate
Pain + Injury = Painjury
Saint + Intellectual = Saintellectual

Here is my own selection of pormanteaux which you don't see often being listed on websites devoted to them. Most of these, you will not fail to notice, belong to slang language, or should I say Slanguage? (Slanguage, I guess, is a double portmanteau as Slang itself is a portmanteau comprising as it does of 'Street' and 'Language'.) So here it goes: Custard. If you think it describes a dish consisting of milk, eggs, flavouring, let me tell you that it is in fact a portmanteau comprising ‘C**t’ and ‘B*****d’. Fugly is another one, which very nicely combines two adjectives: ‘F***ing’ and ‘Ugly’ (the first an informal intensifier that can be used to emphasize a variety of adjectives in a variety of situations), and creates a new word that can be used as both a noun and an adjective. What about F**kwit, a portmanteau that expresses succinctly, though perhaps not very subtly, the lack of respect for someone’s intellectual abilities? Or D**khead which conveys the same meaning. I prefer F**kwit which is gender-neutral, you can even say, politically correct, over 'D**khead' which you won't use to describe a woman when you want to succintly and pithily convey that you find her foolish, inept and contemptible. Fornatio could be a useful word that parcimoniously describes two type of sexual activities. How about Shagathon, when one wants to describe a prolonged sexual congress? Corpenad is not the non-sensical word it sounds. Comprising 'Corpulent' and 'Maenad', it is, I'll put it to you, a high-brow word (it shows, to those who care about these things, your expert knowledge of Greek mythology) that describes a well-fed woman who is in a state of frenzy (perhaps because of the delay in getting Big Mac Meal).

When I mentioned to a friend of mine my intention to post my fulmination against portmanteaux on this blog, he advised me to temper the diatribe pointing out that the word Blog itself is a portmanteau.