Figurative Speech: Portmanteau

What is portmanteau? Doesn’t that sound a little posh to be an English word? What sort of strange airy-fairy linguistics stuff are you presenting us now, Matt, in the name of edutainment? There you go, there’s the first one for you – edutainment. Portmanteau in its original meaning refers to a type of bag that opens into two equal parts. A bit like a Doctor’s bag, but that’s not the version we’re talking about today. We’re talking about literary use of which “edutainment” is included. So chillax and read on (yep, that’s another one!)

Like its carry bag namesake, a portmanteau is a word made up of two parts – both of which are separate words. We splice them together to form a new word. Edutainment, for example, is the splicing of “education” and “entertainment” and chillax is the splicing of “chill” and “relax”. It’s not a new thing, I heard my first portmanteau in the 1980s with the ITV charity Telethon – now a common word – which is the splicing of telephone and marathon. Yet there are more than that. American English gave us “motel” splicing of “motor” and “hotel” for those cheap and cheerful hotels designed with overnight travellers on long journeys in mind – no room service, no pool, not even a concierge – just some rooms and an office.

We use the term today in the UK and hotel chains like Travelodge (hmm, their name is portmanteau isn’t it?) have proven very successful at their business model. Another older one is sitcom referring to a certain type of comedy show, “situation comedy”. I’m also sure we have all heard of the spork.

These are some of the older more well-known examples of portmanteau. What about more recent ones that have made their way into the psyche? Look at the building below. What strikes you about it?

Aside from being ugly and more than a little naff, we identify the architectural style as being mock Tudor or mock Elizabethan without even the slightest attempt to appear authentic. This is one of my favourite portmanteaus; we call this modern mock-up style Tudorbethan to show that an architectural style is loosely emulating, and is fairly generic, Tudor/Elizabethan architecture. We also use the word to refer to period dramas where the outfits and other elements of the period are not quite right.

Another one used to demonstrate terrible attempts at doing a cockney accent is mockney splicing mock and cockney. Cor blimey guvnor, apples and pears! Watch Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne doing a mockney accent. Though to be fair, nobody could ever come close to Dick Van Dyke cringing mockney accent.

You skipped or missed breakfast and it’s too late, but you are hungry and it’s too early for lunch so what do you do? You have brunch.

The internet has given us some brilliant ones. As bloggers (web loggers) who occupy the blogosphere (blogging atmosphere) we’re doing it all the time and we didn’t even know it. When US President Obama proposed sweeping reforms of the American healthcare system, emulating some of Europe’s socialised healthcare, it quickly picked up the moniker Obamacare. Staying with American politics, we hear about Reaganomics. Hell, even wikipedia could be considered portmanteau. “Wiki” is Hawaiian quick and the paedia has come from encyclopaedia.

Some other noteworthy portmanteau

  • Gaydar – “gay” and “radar” used to denote a kind of sixth sense for spotting homosexuals
  • Blaxploitation – “black” and “exploitation” a film genre of the 1970s that played up to stereotypes
  • Frankenfood – “Frankenstein” and “food” a label used by opponents of GM and biotechnology
  • Frenemy – “Friend” and “enemy” two people who have intimate knowledge of each other but are not friends (usually, they were once)
  • Mockumentary – “Mock” and “documentary” a satire or spoof of documentary film making
  • Fanzine – “Fan” and “magazine” referring to an amateur magazine made by fans, for fans
  • Sheeple – “Sheep” and “people” used to deride those who indulge in mindless groupthink

My Own Humble Suggestions

My girlfriend and I have come up with a couple between us. Long distance relationships mean you have the be imaginative at how you spend time together. We have taken to having film nights, sharing her Netflix account and watching films or TV shows in sync; we’re watching at the same time but many miles apart. We got through all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica by Galactiskyping. She has got me into the US version of the Office and now we’re Offiskyping. I’m hoping she will be open to watching Farscape with me in future so we can Farskype.

Finally, there are some brilliantly funny new suggestions here.


2 thoughts on “Figurative Speech: Portmanteau

  1. Sabina

    Portmanteaus can be fun & catchy. Thanks for this!

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