Word Play: Portmanteaus


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, June 21st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Before we get into Word Play today, I just want to say how much I agreed with George Grant—right up toward the beginning of the program—in his own eloquent way encouraging you to get involved in our Spring Giving Drive.    

George talked about the meanings of words and how that seems up for grabs these days. I encounter that a lot when I’m working on the Legal Docket, for sure. But here at WORLD, we do have what he calls a unique vision in a culture that’s lost its way: Tell the truth.  

EICHER: Right, and he talked about the meaning of the term fundraising, which essentially has to do with laying a foundation, and so when you combine that with a compelling vision, it’s a powerful argument for getting involved.

Thank you so much if you’ve given already. It means so much to us that you care about this work and that you’re eager to strengthen our foundation.

If you’ve not given yet, I’d encourage you to make your gift online today at wng.org/donate. You’ll see our campaign tracker, and you’ll see we still have a way to go, and it’s going to take a strong finish to hit our goal. wng.org/donate.

REICHARD: I know we can do it! Now George may not agree with my etymological thinking, but the first three letters of fundraising are F-U-N.

EICHER: Yeah. I think George would tell you that’s just a happy coincidence.

REICHARD: Well, I’m happy to say we’ve not heard the last of him today. Here now is George Grant with this month’s installment of Word Play.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: While perusing the dusty shelves of an antiquarian bookshop recently, I ran across a well-worn copy of Rich Hall’s Sniglets, under a stack of Calvin and Hobbes classics.

Subtitled, Words that Don’t Appear in the Dictionary, but Should, the little illustrated paperback is a collection of comic neologisms.

Among my favorites are Aquadextrous—the ability to turn a bathtub faucet on and off with your toes; Beelzebug—that demonic mosquito in your bedroom at 3 AM; Elbonics—two people maneuvering for one armrest on an airplane; Phonesia—dialing a phone number and immediately forgetting who you were calling; Spudrubble—the unclaimed French fries at the bottom of a fast food bag.

As I chuckled flipping through the book, it struck me that each of these clever made-up words were actually portmanteaus—a linguistic blending of two or more words in order to create an entirely new word. Differentiated from compound words like bookstore, baseball, makeup, or notebook, portmanteaus hybridize words—thus, we have smog, from smoke and fog, or motel, from motor and hotel.

Originally, Victorian English borrowed the French term portmanteau to describe a trunk or suitcase that opened into two equal compartments.

But, the ever-inventive Lewis Carroll, in his book Through the Looking-Glass, expanded its semantic usefulness. Humpty Dumpty was explaining to Alice the unusual vocabulary in the poem, Jabberwocky—where slithy means slimy and lithe and mimsy mean miserable and flimsy.

“You see,” Humpty explained, “it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Ever afterward, portmanteau passed into common usage to describe blended words like Brexit and brunch, Oxbridge and Texarkana, Gerrymander and Velcro, infomercial and advertainment, academentia and bloatocratic.

Portmanteaus help us describe new developments, trends, fashions, movements, and events, in turn, enlivening growing our language. But, besides all that, they rouse us to good sniglety humor!

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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