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Portmanteau Words

Portmanteau words are those in which two meanings are packed into one word. They are formed by blending or combining two words into one. Lewis Carroll, best known for the classic” Alice in Wonderland”, was the first to come up with such words in his poem Jabberwocky. Two of the his words are brillig ( brilliant+ evening) and slithy (slimy + lithe).These two never became popular but there are many others that are in widespread use today. I was amazed to find how many portmanteau words there are. I divide them into three classes.

I. Those in common usage that we don’t think of as portmanteau words. Two examples are flare ( flame + glare= a sudden burst of bright light) and chortle ( chuckle + snort = to laugh in a breathy gleeful way). Those two I like, but I hate meld (melt+ weld= to blend or combine) probably because it is overused.

II. Those which are commonly used and are obvious portmanteau words. Some examples are smog, brunch, sitcom, infomercial, Chunnel, Cineplex, modem and fanzine. Turducken (Turkey+ duck + chicken =  a chicken stuffed into a duck  stuffed into a turkey) is the only  three-in-one portmanteau word that I know. These are all familiar and easy to decipher but there are others that are of more recent vintage which may not be so obvious. A prime example is affluenza ( affluence + influenza) which means “a lack of guilt or motivation experienced by people who have made or inherited a lot of money”. Apparently, the word dates back to 1954 but became known to the public at large as a result of the notorious drunk driving trial of Ethan Couch. Couch was a 16 year old who drove a pick up truck into a crowd of people that was helping a stranded motorist. Four people were killed and one of the passengers in Couch’s pickup was permanently paralyzed. Couch’s blood alcohol limit was tested at 0.24 ( three times the limit). At his juvenile trial in 2016, a defense expert used the term affluenza while arguing that Couch’s wealthy parents had coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility ! He was found guilty and sentenced to only 120 days in jail and 10 years probation. Before he began his sentence, Couch’s mother spirited him off to Mexico but they were found and extradited back to the U.S. He was subsequently sentenced to two years in jail.

III. Those that are not only obscure but are impossible to break down into their component words. For example, what do you think listicle means. I would have guessed an article that is part of a list. Wrong! It actually means ” a piece of writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list”. Go figure! What about manspreading? It is defined as ” the practice whereby a man traveling on public transport sits with his legs wide apart so as to encroach on an adjoining seat or seats”. I must admit I found that word hilarious, even though it wasn’t as funny as when I encountered its practitioners in real life.

However, the word that really gets my goat is glamping which is a combination of the words glamour + camping. It means vacationing in a rustic setting while enjoying luxurious amenities such as sleeping on soft bedding in a safari tent or teepee, having ample hot water, toilets with heated seats and restaurant quality food “cooked” under the supervision of a chef. ” Cooking”, in this case, means turning your steak when chef at your elbow tells you exactly when to do so. The word angers me because it is the antithesis of camping which implies roughing it out in the great outdoors. Glamping merely gives the illusion of ruggedness while babying customers who pay handsomely for the experience. If I were to coin a word to describe my feelings about such people it would be contempsise ( contempt + despise). The word does not exist ( I just made it up) but all the other portmanteau words in this post can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hard to believe but true!

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Elmore Leonard offered a much quoted dictum about the use of exclamation points ( or exclamation marks) in his book  10 Rules of Writing : “ You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” For most of my life, I had no problem adhering to this rule because I rarely used a punctuation mark. It seemed artificial and I was well able to manage without it.

The purpose of an exclamation point is to ” indicate strong feelings or high volume” and it often marks the end of a sentence.  Initially used to convey joy, wonderment ( ” Eureka!”) or other positive feelings its use was later expanded to communicate  astonishment in a negative sense ( ” Alas!”). Since I never used such interjections, it was easy to avoid using the exclamation point.

All that changed with the advent of e-mails and, more particularly, text messaging. The use of exclamation points exploded and it is not unusual nowadays to see them used in bunches, three or four of them one after another. I must confess that I too am now an inveterate user of exclamation points in my text messages( though only one at a time) and, to a lesser extent, my e-mail.

Why this sudden change?

There are two reasons that are advanced to explain this phenomenon. Eliot Hannon writing in Slate calls exclamation points ” a tonic in the grayness of electronic communication.” He adds” the more insignificant the message, the more the exclamation points.”  Others have put forth the idea that exclamation points are a sign of ” the general exaggeration, aggressiveness and extremism of our culture.”

I subscribe to the first explanation. Often, after I have tapped out a text message and am reading it prior to sending it, I find it sounds abrupt and unfeeling, somehow incomplete. The solution: Add an exclamation point. A text message is not so much a written communication as a written conversation and, because it has to be brief, it is well nigh impossible to convey tone and emphasis without resorting to exclamation points. Twitter  demands even more brevity and Twitterers use exclamation points even more freely. I also suspect that many writers on social media are poor communicators and don’t have the language skills to convey what they want to say without devices such as exclamation points.

Not that Elmore Leonard followed his own rule. In his 45 novels, he used an average of 45 exclamation points per 100,000 words, about 16 times as many as he recommended.  However, he is still better than most others. Salman Rushdie used 204 ( per 100,000), Tom Wolfe  929 and James Joyce 1,105.*

Ultimately, it is up to individuals to use as few ( or as many) exclamation points as they want. Elmore Leonard notwithstanding, there are no hard and fast rules for the use of exclamation points. Let it also be said, however, that an abundance of exclamation points is visually unappealing and causes the discerning reader to have a poor opinion of the writer.

P.S I didn’t use a single exclamation point in this post ( except to give an example) and it wasn’t really difficult to do so.

  • Figures are from Nabakov’s Favorite Word Was Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers and Our Own Writing  by Ben Blatt.

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(Earlier this year, I joined a writing group in our Active Adult community and it was a most entertaining experience. For our first assignment, we were given the words ” The door opened and what a surprise..” and asked to write a story around them. This was my entry).

The door opened and what a surprise…

There was no one there… or so it appeared. She looked all around. Still no one. Then she looked down and saw the puppy. It could not have been more than a month old. But how had it got there? The nearest house was half a mile away and there was no way the puppy could have got to her doorstep on its own. Someone must have brought it there . But who? And why?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a whimper. The poor thing was shivering, half-dead from the cold. There was no way she could leave it there. Impulsively, she stooped down, picked it up and brought it inside to the warmth. The first thing was to get it dry and warm. She fetched a towel and gave it a quick rubdown. Now to give it some food. She went to the kitchen and laid the puppy, still wrapped in the towel, on the floor. Then she went to the fridge, got out the milk and poured some into a saucer. Since the milk was cold, she decided to warm it. She was reaching for the microwave door when she heard a low growl behind her.

She whipped around and looked at the puppy… only it wasn’t a puppy any longer. Before her horrified eyes, it grew and grew. Gone was the smooth silky skin; it was now a shaggy bristly coat. Gone was the cute little face; it was now a wolf’s head. Pointed snout, bloodshot eyes, cruel mouth. She shrank back against the counter as the wolf fixed its baleful eyes on her. Then it launched itself at her. Just before its slavering jaws found her throat she s-c-r-e-a-m-e-d…

One last despairing scream… she sound of which shocked her awake. She found herself sitting bolt upright in her bed, heart pounding frantically, a cold sweat on her brow.” It was only a dream! Only a dream!” she kept repeating, as her heartbeat slowly returned to normal. Sleep was an impossibility, so she threw off the bedclothes and padded to the kitchen in her stocking feet to get a drink of water.

As the ice-cold water trickled down her throat, she asked herself  why. Why had she had the dream? The answer came to her as she thought about it calmly. It must have been that movie she had watched on Netflix. ” The Werewolves of Lublin.” Yes, that must have been it. Then and there, she resolved never to watch scary TV shows at night. Never again, girl.

She thought about her situation. Living alone in a big house in the country, far from neighbors. It was different when John was alive and the kids still lived at home. Now John was gone and the kids lived far away. One in Atlanta, the other in San Diego. She was lonely now. Just an old woman in a big house. Perhaps she should sell the house and move in with the kids. They had been after her to do just that. It would be nice to be around people again, watch her grandchildren grow up. Yes, it was time.

She rinsed her glass and put it in the sink. Then, she took a last look at the kitchen and went to the bedroom. Before she got into bed, she looked out the window. So pristine the landscape, so beautiful the snow-laden boughs of the trees, the icicles hanging from the eaves. Could she really leave all this behind? This was where she had lived all her married life, almost fifty happy years.Was moving in with the kids the right thing to do? And the grandkids … fine in small doses but could she stand them all the time, day in and day out?

Still thinking these thoughts, wrestling with the choices before her and what she wanted to do, she got into bed and drew the bedclothes around her. She was slowly drifting off to sleep when she heard the noise. The same that had woken her up before. There it was again!

Slowly, unwillingly, she got out of bed, stole to the front door and glanced out through the sidelight. Nothing. The snow covered landscape was bare and beautiful in the moonlight. But she simply had to take a look. She unlatched the door and turned the doorknob.

The door opened and what a surprise…

 

 

 

 

 

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