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Portmanteau: More than a Coatrack and a Suitcase

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines portmanteau as (1) a large suitcase or (2) “a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms (as smog from smoke and fog).” In this blog post, we will be exploring the second definition provided by this famous dictionary, although there are other methods by which to create linguistic word blends.

Renowned English writer, Lewis Carroll, is recognized as the first to use the word “portmanteau” in the context of linguistic word blending in his book Through the Looking-Glass (1871) which is the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In Carroll’s 1871 book, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the invented words in “Jabberwocky,” a nonsense poem included in the book itself, like “slithy” which is the portmanteau of “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” of “flimsy and miserable.” Here, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that combining words is “…like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Although the etymology of the word “portmanteau” actually comes from the French porte-manteau (porter, to carry, and manteau, cloak) and while in modern French, a porte-manteau is a coatrack; a portmanteau was a suitcase that opened into two equal sections in Carroll’s times, so the analogy of a portmanteau word with that of a portmanteau (the suitcase) is actually very eloquent.

So, a portmanteau word fuses both the sounds and the meanings of its components. Here is a very brief list of portmanteau words which you most probably have heard, but may not know their component words, and, hence, their meaning:

  • Tanzania: The name Tanzania is a portmanteau of the names of the two African states, Tanganyikaand Zanzibar, which unified to create the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964.
  • Microsoft: This is a portmanteau of microcomputer and software.
  • Velcro: Velcro comes from the combination of the French words Velours (velvet) and Crochet (hook).
  • Verizon: Verizon is a combination of veritas, which is Latin for truth, and horizon.
  • Gerrymandering: This portmanteau refers to Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s politically motivated re-districting for a state senate election and was coined by the Boston Gazette on March 26th, 1812.

For more on portmanteaus, particularly other interesting portmanteaus in English as well as in other languages, click here.