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what's a portmanteau word?

A portmanteau word is a single word produced by joining parts of two or more words and combining their meanings, spellings, and sounds. The new portmanteau word is a mixture or blend of each of the original words; it possesses a unique meaning that's different from but related to the meaning of each of the words that comprise it.

Another definition for portmanteau word is blend. Blend carries the idea that the sounds, spellings, and meanings of two or more different words have been blended or merged to form a single new word with a unique new meaning that's not exactly the same as the meaning of any of the words it combines.

Although a portmanteau word's meaning is different from the meaning of each of the words it combines, its new meaning relates to each of the combined words, and it expresses something new and different about them. For example, brunch is a portmanteau word that blends the words breakfast and lunch. A brunch is neither a breakfast nor a lunch; it's a single meal that serves as both breakfast and lunch. Brunch is spelled with a combination of the letters that spell breakfast and lunch and it sounds like both words when pronounced.

OriginLewis Caroll

Lewis Carroll is the originator of the concept of the portmanteau word and, as such, was the first to use one in print. He also invented the term portmanteau word itself.

As examples of portmanteau words, we'll examine two portmanteau words devised by Lewis Carroll, the words slithy and mimsy. These kinds of words first appear in the English language in Carroll's imaginative adventure story, Through the Looking Glass. In the book, Humpty Dumpty, talking to Alice, clears up her confusion over words she has read in a poem called Jabberwocky (also by Carroll). Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that slithy combines two previously existing English words, slimy and lithe. Mimsy combines miserable and flimsy.


About the word Portmanteau

A portmanteau is a large leather suitcase that opens into two hinged compartments. It's a case or bag to carry clothing in while traveling, especially a leather trunk or suitcase that opens into two halves.

Chiefly, the term is used by the British, who borrowed it from the French word portemanteau, which is derived from porte, meaning to carry, and manteau, meaning cloak or mantle, a loose outer garment. Literally, it means It carries the cloak. It's a bag that's large enough to carry a cloak.

The anglicized term portmanteau is a single word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two different French words (porte, manteau). Neverhteless, portmanteau is not itself a portmanteau word; it is a single word formed by placing the French equivalents for two English words (carry, cloak) next to each other.

more about portmanteau words

The term portmanteau word is borrowed from the English word portmanteau. Despite this fact, the word portmanteau is not itself a portmanteau word. Why? Because, to be a portmanteau word, a word must have been created by combining two other words to form a single word in a special way. The new word that emerges must be a word that is not merely the two original words stuck together side-by-side (concatenated); and the new word must mean something different from either of the original words taken alone or both taken together.

Here's an example of a true portmanteau word: chortle. Chortle is a combination of chuckle and snort. Although chortle is composed of chuckle and snort, a chortle is neither a chuckle nor a snort. And the word isn't formed by placing chuckle and snort side-by-side; if it were, it would be chucklesnort.

Here's where the idea of a "mantle" comes in. Forming the new (portmanteau) word from two other words, neither of which means what the new word means, is like placing a cloak around a person's two shoulders; that is, it covers or hides the two original words while forming (bringing close together) the two words to form a new word that "carries" a new meaning.

Blends and portmanteau words

Portmanteau words are a kind of linguistic construct called a blend. A blend is a word made by putting together parts of other words, such as motel, which is made up of motor and hotel, brunch, which is made up of breakfast and lunch, or guesstimate, which is made up of guess and estimate.

A blend is a word formed from parts of two or more other words. The parts are almost always morphemes.

More examples of blends:

  1. bash from bang and smash
  2. clash, from clack and crash
  3. geep, which is an offspring of goat and sheep.
  4. motorcade from motor and cavalcade
  5. dormobiles from dormitory automobiles
  6. slurbs from slum and suburbs
  7. travelogue from travel and monologue
  8. telegram from cable and cablegram
  9. avionics from aviation and electronics
  10. bionics from biology and electronics
  11. nucleonics from nuclear and electronics
  12. bit from binary unit and bit
  13. quasar from quasistellar and star
  14. pulsar from pulsating and star

Notice that not all blends are portmanteau words. A portmanteau word is not just two words arbitrarily stuck together: it is a new word created when parts of two other words are elided and other parts are scrapped.

But there's more to a portmanteau word than just combining and deleting parts of words. A portmanteau word usually exhibits these characteristics. It:

  • Is not simply a combination of its constituent words, one linked to the other like a chain.
  • Is a new word in its own right with a new meaning all its own, not simply the meaning that comes from adding one of the other words to the other. Parts of the original words that make a portmanteau word are lost when the original words are combined into the new word.
  • Is usually a clever construction that is amusing, insightful, or enlightening.
  • Adds value to the English language. Not only is it a new word in the English lexicon; it might add a novel idea that never before found expression or a new way of expressing something that would be harder or clumsier to express otherwise.
  • It must sound "right." As Shakespeare said, "It falls trippingly from the tongue."

Breaking down a portmanteau word into its constituent words provides a key to understanding the word's meaning and its origin.

the Portmanteau word raised to a fine artAbout James Joyce

At first, there may not seem to be much to the portmanteau word. Words like bit and bash are simple beasties, after all. But then came the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. Joyce coined this portmanteau word:


We'll use this portmanteau coinage to look deeper into the complexities of portmanteau words.

Undoubtedly, James Joyce is a master of the English portmanteau word. One of his masterpieces, Finnegan's Wake, contains tens of thousands of them, including ten so-called thunderclaps, each one a hundred letters long.

Thunderclaps symbolize a number of things, including the fateful fall from the ladder of the eponymous Irish hod carrier Tim Finnegan, and the Irish wake which is celebrated in the novel.


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