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English Dictionary

Portmanteau words: Fantabulous or vomitrocious?

English Dictionary

Portmanteau words: Fantabulous or vomitrocious?

As an editor and an all-round word nerd, I find myself constantly tuned in to developments in the English language and the new words people are coining. The digital age moves so quickly that new words are entering our vocabulary like never before.

What’s more, a particular style of word seems to be burgeoning. It’s a style that takes existing words and melds them into brand new ones. It’s the portmanteau word.

Literally speaking, a portmanteau is an old-fashioned suitcase divided into two segments, but in his 1871 book ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, famous author Lewis Carroll gave it a new literary meaning. His character Humpty Dumpty uses the word ‘slithy’ – a combination of ‘slimy’ and ‘lithe’ – and compares it to a portmanteau in that there are “two meanings packed up into one word”.

Since then, words like ‘motel’ (motor + hotel) and ‘smog’ (smoke + fog) have come to be referred to as ‘portmanteaus’. You may have also heard people using phrases like ‘guesstimate’ (guess + estimate) and ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry). Nowadays, due to the ways in which analogue-era artefacts are given digital revamps, portmanteaus are cropping up everywhere. For example, what you’re reading now, a blog, is a fusion of ‘web’ and ‘log’.

The September 2016 updates to the Oxford English Dictionary include several of these amalgamated words, such as ‘slacktivist’ (slacker + activist), ‘clicktivist’ (click + activist), ‘frightsome’ (frightful + fearsome) and ‘moobs’, which you can probably work out for yourself.

Of course, when Oxford Dictionaries selects its Word of the Year 2016, the smart money will be on ‘Brexit’, which has perhaps reflected a zeitgeist more than any other portmanteau ever thought up. Combining ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’, it was initially used to refer to the idea of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, and then the reality of what the result of the June referendum meant. Before ‘Brexit’, there was ‘Grexit’ (Greece + exit), although this remains merely a hypothesis.

You know a portmanteau has become widely accepted when suffixes start being added to it to form new words. A person in favour of the UK leaving the EU is now referred to as a ‘Brexiteer’. In fact, Brexit has even spawned a portmanteau of its own: ‘Regrexit’. Referring to remorseful feelings about voting Leave in the referendum, it’s a single word meaning ‘regret over Britain’s exit’ taking parts of the three nouns in that phrase to form a triple portmanteau.

Like a lot of portmanteaus, Brexit isn’t a popular word with everyone. Some will ask why we can’t use ‘proper’ words and why we feel the need to make up our own non-standard ones.

The simple answer to this is because new events and inventions create a need for us to expand our vocabularies. There has never previously been much of a need to create a word referring to Britain exiting something, but there is now, so a snappy word in place of ‘Britain exiting the European Union’ makes sense. ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ are perfectly good words in themselves, so why not reuse and recycle the words we know and love?

John Murray
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