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Portmanteau: A ‘subtlactice’

Updated on October 1, 2016

The term portmanteau conjures up visions of Victorian murder mysteries, with the suspect caught at the train station, carrying a suspicious trunk that can open into two halves. The word originated in the late 1500s and literally meant “it carries the cloak.” It quickly became a common British term for leather luggage which opens into two equal-sized compartments.

From there, portmanteau has become an adjective for things with two sides. A portmanteau test, portmanteau theorem, and portmanteau film. While these terms are a bit of a sidestep, since they relate to correlations rather than to something two-sided. More to the point is the portmanteau mail bag. In pharmaceuticals, a portmanteau inhibitor is a molecule that combines two portions of a two inhibitor-class drugs.

It is this last description which leads us to the most common usage of the term – portmanteau words. These are new words coined by the combination of two related words. It is believed that Lewis Carroll came up with the term to apply to the words he created in the Jabberwocky poem. In his book Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains, “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. You see, it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed into one word.” Carroll is also coined chortle (chuckle plus snort) and galumph (gallop plus triumph). If one has the patience to parse Jabberwocky, the poem actually makes sense.

Many blended words which are also called portmanteau words are ordinary parts of the English language now: bash (bang plus smash), because (by plus cause), bionic, biopic, blog (Web plus log), beefalo, guesstimate, and WiFi, among many others. A rather complete list can be found here.

The use of portmanteau as being two sides of a coin has started to spread. On Dec. 14, 2002, Nicholas Lezar referred to a piece of literature in his The Guardian article titled Spooky tales by the master andfriends: “The overall narrator of this portmanteau story - for Dickens co-wrote it with five collaborators on his weekly periodical, All the Year Round - expresses deep, rational scepticism [sic] about the whole business of haunting.”

In the same month and year, Dec. 11, 2002, Nick Bradshaw reviewed a film using the more ‘correlated’ use of the word in his article One day in September (Time Out): “We're so bombarded with images, it's a struggle to preserve our imaginations.' In response, he's turned to cinema, commissioning 11 film-makers to contribute to a portmanteau film, entitled '11'09"01' and composed of short films each running 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame.”

The correlation of a variety of subjects seems more like a case for the use of the term “portfolio” rather than expanding the meaning of “portmanteau,” But, as with Lewis Carroll, a writer can create a word or new usage for a word; they call that literary license.

© 2016 Bonnie-Jean Rohner


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