Monthly Archives: January 2011

Portmanteaus: Word mashups

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Jan. 19, 2011.

This cake is choctacular!

“A Lick and a Promise” is a mockumentary about stamp collecting.

We’re doing a webinar on knot-tying.

These three sentences contain what linguists call “portmanteau words” or “portmanteaus,” which are basically word mashups: Take two existing words that you want to combine — chocolate and spectacular, for example — and mash them together, usually the front part of one with the back part of the other.

The word “portmanteau” — originally meaning a suitcase — was given this new definition by Lewis Carroll (of “Alice in Wonderland” fame), and anyone who’s read his poem “Jabberwocky” can understand why he needed a word for this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice:
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Many portmanteaus arise in the technical sphere, often because the words they combine are long, like modem (modulator + demodulator) and malware (malicious + software).

And a lot of portmanteaus are used for fun, like bootylicious and shopaholic. But some portmanteaus, like smog and humongous and motel and even Internet, are so common that we don’t even realize they’re combinations of two words (smoke + fog, huge + monstrous, motor + hotel, inter + networking or internetworking + networks).

The key to portmanteaus is that they have to be easily understood even though they may not be “real” words. You might not find guesstimate or sexcapade in the dictionary, but you know what they mean.

Putting up with phrasal verbs

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Jan. 10, 2011.

Some languages add prefixes, infixes or suffixes to verbs to change the meaning. For example, in Russian the word for “go” can change through prefixes into “go in,” “go out,” “go around,” “go across,” “go over,” “go under” and so on. Each one is still a single word.

English, however, frequently adds a preposition after a verb to change the verb’s meaning. These are called phrasal verbs. (Phrasal verbs can also be constructed with adverbs.)

Some verbs have drastically different meanings depending on the preposition — or prepositions; there can be more than one — that follows.

For instance, you put your cards on the table. You put up money before the poker game, and put in your ante before each hand. You put down your friend who fidgets every time she has a good hand, but gently, so she doesn’t get put out. You put up with her cousin at the game because you need him to round out the group after another member put in for a transfer at work and moved to Peoria. You put away the cards when you’re done.

This is one reason you don’t need to worry about ending a sentence with a preposition: Many “prepositions” that are part of phrasal verbs don’t really function as prepositions. Some don’t even take objects.

Choose your prepositions carefully, making sure what you write is truly what you intend. And feel free to position the preposition at the end.