Tag Archives: etymology

The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 30, 2011.

“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

The origin of this quote is uncertain, but its accuracy is not in doubt: As languages go, English takes what it needs from wherever it can.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words that make up English, the vast majority come from either Germanic or Latin sources.

Most of our short one- and two-syllable words for common objects, actions and qualities (house, hat, run, sing, green, etc.) and basic bits of grammar (the, one, and, in, etc.) are Germanic.

Most of our longer words — ones that have a root and a prefix or suffix — are Latin, or Greek. These would include such patriotic words as independence, constitution and government, and such workaday words as computer, television and refrigerator.

But English is not at all particular about where it picks up its words: The world’s languages are just one big smorgasbord (that one’s from Swedish) for our mother tongue to nibble from. Continue reading The world’s a smorgasbord for English

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.