A Topic for Brunch: The Portmanteau

Victor Wishna

Staff Writer

Victor Wishna's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR, KCMetropolis.org, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.

Brunch: It’s not breakfast, it’s not lunch; it’s neither, and both. I’m not talking about what you order—that’s totally up to you*—but the word itself, which falls into one of my all-time favorite linguistic-concept categories: the portmanteau.

*Seriously, though, you’re getting the steak tartare? For brunch?

Originating from the French portemanteau—a traveling case large enough for a cloak—it signifies a word that is a blend of two other words, with certain parameters: the new word that emerges must not be merely the two original words stuck together side-by-side, and it must mean something different from either of the original words taken alone or both taken together. That is, it is a word cloaked in the meaning of the other two.

One of the great joys of reading, of course, is discovering new words, and it was while reading Amanda Nelson’s post this week that—in addition to agreeing with all of her sentiments—I was pleased to discover “mombies” and to be reminded how much fun words like that can be.

“Portmanteau,” the word and concept, has been one of my favorites* since it was imparted to me by Mr. Allen in his 10th-grade English class, a milestone year in the development of my vocabulary, as it was for most of his students.

*One of the others is synecdoche, which also happens to be about language and deserves it’s own post, though I probably remember it so well because Mr. Allen made a point of emphasizing that it was not the same as Schenectady, New York. That was also the first time I had ever heard of Schenectady, New York.

Literature, of course, gave us the first portmanteaus (or, if you must, portmanteaux—which is not an English word, despite the fact that Microsoft Word allows it), some of which we may not even recognize as compounds. “Chortle,” a combination of “chuckle” and “snort,” was coined by Lewis Carroll in his poem “Jabberwocky” (as it appears in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There). In fact, some credit Carroll for introducing the concept, at least in print, and giving it the label portmanteau in the first place. Meanwhile, James Joyce created and used thousands of portmanteaus in Finnegan’s Wake.

Okay, real quick, here are a few I consider among the greatest hits (but just a few of many winners…):

  • mockumentary: because I love documentaries and I love mocking things; and I love This is Spinal Tap and most of Christopher Guest’s later efforts
  • snark: used it for years before even realizing it was a blend, of “snide” and “remark”
  • bromance: makes that special platonic bond with male friends more hip
  • Chinglish: one of the occasional unexpected joys of traveling in China, or Chinatown; and you may even discover the secret to eternal life
  • KenTacoHut: more for nostalgic reasons dating back to high-school days, the three-in-one complex of KFC (née Kentucky Fried Chicken), Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut
  • sacrilicious: Simpsons, anyone?

Please feel free to share your favorites…

Thanks to technology, marketing, and the interwebs, we are living in the Golden Age of the Portmanteau. Companies from FedEx to Microsoft to Groupon have harnessed its power. And that is perhaps the best thing of all: you can create your own portmanteaus, even if your name isn’t Lewis Carroll. Whether or not they will catch on outside your circle of friends—well, that’s the difference between “brunch” and “linner.”