Portmanteau (noun) — 1) a large trunk or suitcase, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts. 2) a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others. — Definitions from Oxford Languages.
Thanks to my addiction to crossword puzzles and word games, I’ve become obsessed with portmanteaus — the words, not the luggage. Prompted by a crossword clue to look up the definition, I quickly fell down a portmanteau rabbit hole, or, as I now call it, a portmantole. Pretty appropriate, as Lewis Carroll is credited with coining the second definition in “Through the Looking-Glass,” when Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the meanings of some of the “Jabberwocky” words. “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’ . . . You see, it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
After Carroll’s introduction of the concept in 1871, the use of portmanteau words became a popular literary device. A hundred years later, the Information Age spawned an explosion of portmanteaus — a portmantosion? — like intercom (internal + communication), bionic (biology + electronic) and brunch (breakfast + lunch).
Technological progress caused portmanteau coinage to further snowball (Note: Snowball is not a portmanteau but rather a compound word, in which two complete words are attached to make a third). Even folks who aren’t computer literate know about blogs (web + logs) and email (electronic + mail).
The entertainment industry and news media are especially fond of this device, as evidenced below:
• Telethon (television + marathon)
• Sitcom (situation + comedy)
• Romcom (romance + comedy)
• Mockumentary (mock + documentary)
• Rockumentary (rock + documentary)
• Dramedy (drama + comedy)
• Edutainment (education + entertainment)
• Infomercial (information + commercial)
• Reaganomics (Ronald Reagan + economics)
• Obamacare (Barack Obama + health care)
• Brexit (Britain + exit)
And by presenting those words in the manner above, I just turned this column into a listicle (list + article).
Pandemic-inspired combos include the self-explanatory Covidiot and quarantini. The opposite of a Covidiot is a Covidient (COVID + obedient). A Covidient might suffer from maskne (mask + acne), especially if they happen to be a quaranteen. The virus even prompted a double portmanteau: Coronacation, which is a forced break from normal activities due to COVID, combining coronavirus and staycation (stay + vacation).
Interestingly, at least to me, the word itself is a portmanteau, coined in the mid-1500s by combining the French “porter” (carry) and “manteau” (mantle, or cloak). Other examples which have existed for so long, we don’t even realize they are portmanteaus, are splatter (splash + spatter), dumbfounded (dumb + confounded) and electrocution (electricity + execution).
Food-related portmanteaus are so commonplace, you could plan a luncheon or dinner around the theme: manwiches or tofurkey for the main dish, froyo and cronuts for dessert, washed down with frappucinos or mocktails. Of course, you’d use sporks for utensils and maybe hold your party at a gastropub.
And since we humans insist on interfering with Mother Nature, we’ve crossbred canines, mostly poodles, to come up with designer breeds like the Cockapoo, Maltipoo and Labradoodle. Less popular, perhaps because the names aren’t as cute and catchy, are the Chug (Chihuahua/Pug), Horgi (Husky/Corgi) and Pitsky (Pit Bull/Husky).
We’ve also created mixed-breed portmanteaus elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The offspring of a buffalo and a cow is called a beefalo or cattalo; the product of a lion/tiger union is known as a liger; a zonkey is not a stoned jackass, but a cross between a zebra and a donkey.
Sportmanteau (the act of finding or creating fun fusions — I just made that up!) is not limited to English speakers. Some of the best portmanteaus, you could call them portmantops, come from pidgin (Hawaii Creole English). Here, with standard English translations, are my favorites:
• Brokanic (broken + mechanic) – someone who fancies himself a mechanic but isn’t.
• Boddaration (bother + irritation) — extreme annoyance; can be used to describe a person (“Ho, he so boddaration!”), an act (“No make boddaration, you!”) or a circumstance (“Aaack! Boddaration!”)
• Titatude (tita + attitude) — what you get when you annoy a local girl.
• Onolicious (ono [Hawaiian for delicious] + delicious) — extremely delicious, usually said of local style foods.
Inspired by these gems, I’ve been trying to create new pidgin portmanteaus (pidginteaus? Nah, nah, nah, nah). So far, I’ve only come up with one: hammajoke. Hammajang (which sounds like a portmanteau, but I haven’t successfully confirmed its origin) means “junk” or “broken,” so hammajoke would be a messed up attempt at humor, or a joke that falls flat.
You might describe the previous paragraph as a hammajoke, but then I’d have to pull some titatude on you. Boddaration!
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.