When Words Collide: The Influence of Portmanteaux on Language

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When you set up a brunch date with friends, your only thought may be of the scrumptious meal that awaits you, but did you know that this clever combination of breakfast and lunch is an example of a portmanteau?

‘Portmanteau’ is a phrase coined by Lewis Carroll, in his novel “Through the Looking Glass.” Humpty Dumpty explains the unusual words “slithy” (slimy and lithe) and “mimsy” (miserable and flimsy) from the poem, “Jabberwocky,” to Alice. He tells her:

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

The creative blending of words allows you to create a new word that takes on the meaning of both the other words. And it has become really prolific in English, showing just how flexible language is and how magically it can be combined and blended to create a myriad of meanings. So the next time you use frenemy, workaholic, mocktail or jeggings, remember that you’re participating in the clever play of language that is portmanteau.

While some words are quite obvious, such as brunch, smog (smoke and fog), motel (motor and hotel), and spork (spoon and fork), there are many words you might not know were portmanteaux since they’ve become so entrenched in our everyday language.

10 Words You Probably Didn’t Know Were Portmanteaux

We guestimate that many of you didn’t know the origins of these words!

1. Podcast

The invention that brought you Serial, This American Life, and countless language learning opportunities, derives its name from iPod and broadcast, indicating the role of portable media players for this medium of broadcasting music, talk shows and various other types of entertainment and information.

2. Velcro

This convenient fastener has its origins in French. It comes from velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). While it might not be made out of velvet, the idea of material that hooks is a pretty accurate description.

3. Endorphin

Everyone’s favourite exercise high and natural painkiller, endorphin, is a combination of endogenous and morphine. Basically it’s the body’s own dose of morphine.

4. Vitamin

Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk coined the word ‘vitamine’, from vital and amine. However, it was later discovered that these micronutrients weren’t in fact amines, and the ‘e’ was dropped from the name.

5. Pixel

The combination of picture and element has some mystery surrounding its original use. The earliest use of pixel was in 1965, but the use of picture element goes back to the early days of television.

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6. Tanzania

When Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged in 1964, the names of the two jurisdictions were combined to form Tanzania. Portmanteaux are, in fact, very popular when it comes to place naming, as Eurasia, Mexicali and Calexico prove.

7. Microsoft

Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s hugely successful company got its name from microcomputer and software. This method of naming is popular amongst businesses. Other examples include Sony, which is comprised of sonus (latin for sound) and sonny (slang for youngster), and Verizon, which is a combination of veritas (Latin for truth) and horizon.

8. Modem

Technology innovations and their inventors are fans of portmanteaux. Modem comes from modulator and demodulator, describing the way that digital information is encoded and decoded.

9. Skype

The favourite video chat platform’s name comes from a combination of sky and peer-to-peer. An apt name for an app that lets you chat via the sky to your peers!

10. Bennifer and Brangelina

Ok so you knew these cutesy name combinations of celebrity couples were an obvious blend, but did you know they also count as portmanteaux? Next time you coin a name for your favourite couple, you can sound clever and tell them you’ve come up with a new portmanteau!

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It’s not just English that loves to play around with combining words. That favourite Mexican food, a quesadilla? A combination of queso (cheese) and tortilla (thin flat bread). It’s also cross-lingual. Spanglish, Chinglish and similar terms perfectly illustrate the mixing of languages by combining the two root languages in the name.

Enchanted by how fun and flexible language can be? Try learning a new one and discover the ways in which they borrow from each other. Give one of our language level tests a go online or contact us to get more details about the languages we offer.