I was recently working with an English language learner in a conversation partner appointment, recounting a story about visiting Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee with my wife and some friends (the how and why of me starting to tell a story about spelunking is an entirely different story, but I digress). In the story, I was talking about moving through the different galleries of the cave and noting that one of the galleries was “ginormous” in size.
“Ginormous?” she asked.
I immediately realized that I had unwittingly introduced one of the idiosyncrasies of the English language: the portmanteau (much to the confusion of my speaking partner). The word itself comes from the Old French porter, to carry, and manteau, or cloak, and originally referred to the kind of suitcase that opened to two equal sides.
“Portmanteau” came to have its current meaning from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that the words in the poem “The Jabberwocky” are formed by combining existing words. So “slithy” means “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable.” As Humpty points out, “You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
I love portmanteaus. They go with the way that I think about language. I am endlessly smashing words together to form new words that more closely express the idea that I’m thinking about (a little bit of this and a little bit of that to transform the words into something completely new).
However, I’m not the only one.
I spent a week roaming around the Writing Center, quizzing tutors about their favorite portmanteaus. After thinking about it for a little while, Destiny P. came up with “skort” (“You know, skirt and shorts = skorts. I love those! Practical and stylish!”).
Andrew D. proved that he was the creative sort and invented a portmanteau on the spot. We were in the break room in LPC, surrounded by leftovers snacks from the previous night’s Writers Guild. There were some mysterious pastries of unknown designation lurking on the table, and Andrew proclaimed that one of them most definitely was a “scuffin” (scone + muffin = scuffin).
The amazing thing about portmanteaus is that you often don’t know that they are a portmanteau at all. A prime example of that was Amanda G.’s response to my inquiry. “Gerrymander,” she said. “By far my favorite portmanteau.” She explained that it was the combination of Elbridge Gerry—the name of a 19th-century Massachusetts governor and eventual US vice president—and the word “salamander” (Gerry + salamander = gerrymander).
My personal favorite was Jen F.’s. After thinking for a moment she said, “Well, it would have to be ‘cassingle.’” For the uninformed, cassingles are the cassette singles that were popular in the ’80s (when you only wanted one song). “I’ve still got my favorite, Bow Wow Wow’s “C30, C60, C90, Go!’” Jen said. “I loved Annabella Lwin’s mohawk.”
What’s your favorite portmanteau?