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Mimsy, chortle, and galumph: Alice in Wonderland and the portmanteau

Let’s go glamping. Oh, wait, don’t know what I’m talking about? Vogue introduced glamping – a portmanteau of ‘glamorous’ + ‘camping’ that came into use in the mid 2000s – into the high fashion lexicon in October of 2011 with its suggestion to go pitch a tent and sleep in the woods, decked out in Céline and Hermès. A portmanteau, in the linguistic sense, is a word formed by blending elements from two or more distinct words to create one word with a new, combined meaning. This very process gave rise to its more familiar name – a blend.

Most language enthusiasts have heard of the portmanteau and know what it means. And most luggage enthusiasts can tell you that a portmanteau is also a suitcase with a special compartment for hanging clothing and a regular compartment for folded clothes and other articles. It derives from the Latin portare – to carry and mantellum –a cloak. Less commonly known is the fact that, according to the OED, only one of these meanings existed before 1871. Even less commonly known (and somewhat surprising) is that the evolution of the word portmanteau to include both ‘suitcase’ and ‘linguistic blend’ was first introduced in a children’s book by an anthropomorphized, oddly profound, talking egg.

The portmanteau in Alice’s Wonderland

Confused and lost as she usually is, Alice approaches Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass to ask him to elucidate the meaning of the nonsensical Jabberwocky poem. She wants to know what the words ‘slithy’ and ‘mimsy’ mean.  Humpty Dumpty replies:

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.

The first time Humpty Dumpty uses the word portmanteau, he seems to be using it solely as a vehicle for comparison. To help Alice understand how a word can contain two meanings, he compares such words to the dual-compartment suitcase.  He explains that, just as a portmanteau has a compartment for hanging and one for folding contained within one suitcase, these portmanteau words contain aspects of two distinct words fused into one new word. Only three pages later does Humpty Dumpty seem to be cognizant of the fact that he is creating a word when he refers to ‘portmanteau’ in passing without stopping to define it, suggesting that he does intend it as a noun and not just the vehicle in his metaphor:

. . .Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).

Alice in Wonderland is replete with other such invented portmanteaus, some of which still hold positions in the contemporary English lexicon.  Have you ever heard of someone galumphing along? Galumph is another one of Carroll’s portmanteaus, coming from a blend of ‘triumph’ and ‘gallop’. Another, chortle, is a kind of giddy laugh which Carroll coined from ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’.

The portmanteau today

Today there are numerous portmanteaus in the English language and the act of portmanteau-ing (yes, it’s a verb too) has become fairly linguistically productive. Some common and well-known portmanteaus include:

smog: smoke+fog
Obamacare: Obama+healthcare
infomercial: information+commercial
jeggings: jeans+leggings
breathalyzer: breath+analyzer
Oxbridge: Oxford+Cambridge
bromance: ‘bro’+romance

What is unusual about portmanteaus is that it can be difficult to predict how they will form. Generally in language, we can understand a word’s meaning from the order and structure in which the parts of the word are put together. For example, when we add ‘re–’ to the beginning of a verb, we know this means to do it again, when we add ‘er/or’ to the end of the verb it refers to one who carries out the action of the verb and when we add ‘pseudo–’ to the beginning of a noun, it means a false version of whatever that noun is. This type of system allows us to look at a new word and make an informed guess at its meaning.

Portmanteaus, on the other hand, form in unpredictable, unpatterned ways that often have more to do with how they sound than what they mean. For example, while smog means ‘fog which is intensified by smoke, infomercial certainly does not denote information intensified by a commercial. And this becomes clearer when one word portmanteaus twice with two separate words. Take the blend of the word ‘anorexic’ with ‘tan’ and ‘man’ to create tanorexic and manorexic. While a tanorexic is ‘someone who is emotionally addicted to tanning’, a manorexic is not ‘someone who is emotionally addicted to men’.

However, sometimes, when a specific portmanteau becomes unusually popular, it spurs the creation of other spin-offs. It then becomes linguistically productive, and we can guess at the meaning of the spin-offs because we are familiar with the original. Take for example chocoholic, coming from ‘alcoholic’ and ‘chocolate’. We can now add anything we want to the ‘aholic’ ending and people will know that we are referring to some form of addiction. More recently, there has been tweetaholic, kindle-aholic, startup-aholic, and facebookaholic.

The sticking power of the portmanteau

Generally portmanteaus with the greatest sticking power seem to be those which fill an existing gap in our lexicon. They describe experiences for which we lack words. Gleaning the meaning behind one requires that the speaker have some idea of the (often cultural) phenomenon to which the portmanteau refers.

But what about Lewis Carroll’s creations—mimsy, slithy, chortle? Those certainly don’t seem to be necessary to fill gaps in our lexicon. In the case of Carroll’s portmanteaus, it seems that the most likely reason those even hold positions in the English lexicon is because of Carroll’s significance as a writer. Through the Looking Glass was and still is a hugely popular children’s book and so the word portmanteau stuck to refer to this type of linguistic blend. Whether other portmanteaus will stay in vogue for years to come or drop swiftly out of fashion, only time will tell.

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