Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Portmanteau words -- a National Poetry Month post

I've been thinking about "portmanteau words." That's the term Lewis Carroll invented to explain the existence of words like "frabjous", a conflation of fabulous and joyous (still not sure where the R came in, but it works). I've been performing Jabberwocky for class after class of school kids (with 2 classes left to go today), and I've been talking about portmanteau words with the kids a bit. How it can be okay to use a made-up word, as long as the reader can still get your drift. Some of this hearkens back to a now-old post about nonsense words, so long-time readers may think it sounds vaguely familiar.

A few weeks ago, S invented a portmanteau word when attempting to describe one of the pillows on the couch. She called it "pluffy," because she tried to say "plush" and "fluffy" at the same time. And I think it's a perfect sort of portmanteau word, because if I were to wax on about the pluffy pillows, you'd all know what sort of pillow I was describing even if I hadn't told you the root words.

When speaking with my mother, she and I still use the word "roop" (it's a short "oo", not a long one) to describe something that is not a good value. It's a portmanteau word that came about when I was a teen, and tried to say "rip-off" and "rook" at the same time. And it wasn't all that long ago that I coined a new pejorative term when I referred to one of the contestants on Project Runway (Santino, to be exact) as a "jick". It's a conflaction of "jerk" and "dick," of course. M overheard me and still uses it from time to time. What's the parental guidance rating on a portmanteau version of a minor curse word? I have no clue.

Thus far, the portmanteau words we use within my family have been accidental, even fortuitous, discoveries. But Lewis Carroll, one of the founders of the Oxford English Dictionary, was almost certainly creating his terms purposefully. Perhaps so that he could document the term's earliest usage (something the OED sets out to do). Perhaps to show off his knowledge of archaic terms and root words (something he excelled at). Perhaps he just took exceeding joy in language. Or maybe he just wanted to mess with people -- it is possible, you know, that that was just what he was setting out to do. But I tend to believe it was more a combination of those first three reasons, and not so much the last one -- that was just a happy side-benefit.

Have a frabjous day.


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

As a child, one of my most-used portmanteau words was "writhering." I was incredulous when my mother told me that it wasn't actually a word, that in fact I'd combined "withering" and "writhing."

Robert said...

That's the other one kids love: Jaberwocky. Reinforcing my theory that children have a very strong relationship to sound-sense; much stronger than literal meaning.

Kelly Fineman said...

Robert: All the kids, even the 1st graders, totally "got" the story of Jabberwocky. Plus, since I started right into it at the start of each session, it had the added benefit of getting their attention. I added Tyger for the first graders and they loved it.

Alkelda: if "writhering" is not a word, it should be, and I will add it to my own lexicon from here on.