Grammar Workshop: Portmanteau Words

Wordsmiths love portmanteau words. There is something appealing about taking two words that touch on our meaning and combining them into one that conveys our meaning exactly. Portmanteau is an apt word to describe this powerful effect. A portmanteau is a suitcase that opens into two compartments, enabling one piece of luggage to do double duty.

Through the Looking-Glass

Lewis Carroll first used the term portmanteau to describe blend words in Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. Alice had recently read a long, complicated, and apparently nonsensical poem titled “Jabberwocky.” Fortunately, during her travels, she encountered Humpty Dumpty, who claimed to have the ability to interpret all poems that had ever been written and even a few that hadn’t been written yet.

One of the first words to come up was slithy. To use Humpty Dumpty’s own definition:

“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.”

Humpty Dumpty later identified mimsy as another portmanteau:

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

Portmanteau Words and Compound Words

Note, however, the difference between a portmanteau word and a compound word.

A compound word is created when two or more entire words are joined to create one word with a new meaning. For example:

  • Black + bird = blackbird.
  • Foot + ball = football.
  • High + light = highlight.

A portmanteau, on the other hand, occurs when elements of two or more words are blended to create one word with a combined meaning. For example:

  • Breakfast + lunch = brunch.
  • Information + commercial = infomercial.
  • Motor + pedal = moped.

To further illustrate the difference, note that if we were to form a portmanteau word out of black and bird, we would have blird. Likewise, to make a compound word out of breakfast and lunch, we would create the word breakfastlunch.

Noteworthy Portmanteau Words

Lewis Carroll gave us other portmanteau words in the poem “Jabberwocky.” The two that have stood the test of time and made it into English dictionaries are: 

  • Chortle (chuckle + snort).
  • Galumph (gallop + triumph).

A small sample of other portmanteaus that you might be familiar with includes:

  • Bit (binary + digit).
  • Brexit (Britain + exit).
  • Camcorder (camera + recorder).
  • Chunnel (English Channel + tunnel).
  • Edutainment (education + entertainment).
  • Emoticon (emotion + icon).
  • Eurasia (Europe + Asia).
  • Gerrymander (Elbridge Gerry + salamander).
  • Infomercial (information + commercial).
  • Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever + Poodle).
  • Malware (malicious + software).
  • Medicare (medical + care).
  • Motel (motor + hotel).
  • Podcast (iPod + broadcast).
  • Smog (smoke + fog).
  • Webinar (web + seminar).
Additional Resources

“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
Poem and other related resources from our Online Poetry Anthology.

Portmanteau Words
Quite a large list.

Activities

Portmanteaur
Enter two words and this interactive generates several portmanteau options.

Portmanteau Words
Interactive game of hangman using portmanteau words.

Lesson Plans

Jabberwocky— A Creative Writing Lesson Plan
Lesson plan at BrightHub.com that has students modify the poem.

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