Thursday, August 07, 2008


What is common to the words smog, brunch, fantabulous and mizzle? They are all portmanteau words. The French word "portmanteau" means a travelling bag or a large suitcase. Can you guess why these words are called portmanteau words?

These words often result from the need to have just the right word to describe something. Those who have lived in north India would have seen the fog in wintry evenings blending with the smoke from the coal-fired chulhas. That is smog, a combination of the words smoke and fog.
Even so, a midmorning meal served after breakfast time but before the lunch hour is called brunch (breakfast + lunch). Now, you know why portmanteau words go by that name. Sometimes, the best way to convey two meanings is to combine two words into one!

Portmanteau words mash together the sounds and meanings of two other words. Some portmanteau words paint vivid mental pictures, such as mizzle. This word, first used by Jane Austen in her novel Emma, is a combination of the words mist and drizzle. It is a perfect word to describe very fine rain. So perfect that when you chance upon the word, you can almost feel the weather condition that is being described! Mizzle is indeed a fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous = marvellously good) word!

It is not always that the word coined follows the same order as its constituents. Take, for instance, the word infomercial (a lengthy commercial chock-full of product information). You might not find several of the portmanteau words in the dictionary because some are almost nonsensical. Also, many have only recently become familiar. Others, like mizzle and dramedy (drama and comedy) make perfect sense but are used only in some regions.

Many portmanteau words are labelled as "slang", but many, like smog (smoke + fog), guestimate (guess + estimate), infotainment (information + entertainment) and chortle (chuckle + snort) are accepted. Several brand names like the card game Pictionary (Pictures + Dictionary) are portmanteaux.

If you are a Lewis Carroll fan, you will have encountered many portmanteau words. In fact, he is widely accepted as the person who gave the name portmanteau to these blends. While many portmanteau words can be "figured out", some of them really challenge one's imagination. How would you decipher the Carroll word "slithy"?

How do you make a portmanteau word? Let us hear the master. In The Hunting of the Shark, Carroll says, "Take the two words fuming and furious. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it undecided which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards fuming, you will say fuming-furious; if they turn, even by a hair's breadth, towards furious, you will say furious-fuming; but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you'll say frumious."

Why not try making up your own portmanteau words? Is there some thought you've been trying to express that's really two thoughts in one? Are there two words that just seem to flow together well? Be serious, silly or totally off the wall. But most of all, be creative.

1 comment:

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

A fine piece, as usual. I guess one could call it edutainment.

I checked up the word portmanteau while reading your piece and I find it has two meanings. the noun is what you mentioned in the beginning. It is also an adjective. I quote: "(only before noun): consisting of a number of different items that are combined into a single thing: a portmanteau course; ‘Depression’ is a portmanteau condition."
Therefore the meaning of "a portmanteau word" is pretty straightforward, if one knows the meaning, that is.