Category: Words
Lewis Carroll and Portmanteaus …

I recently stumbled across commenter Lisa’s new word blog This Wretched Hive.1   Lisa writes smart, succinct posts about words old and new.  One of my favorite pieces discusses portmanteaus.  Portmanteaus are words that combine two different words to make something new:  televangelist, spork, interrobang, etc.

I love portmanteaus because when done well, they brush up against word play.  In fact, without that element, portmanteaus pretty much fail.  Consider the example Lisa discovered in her grocery store:

“Portmanteau” is actually a French word for an upright trunk that has dresser-like compartments in one half and a hanging closet in the other.2  I first discovered the word as a child when I read Lewis Carroll’s introduction to “The Hunting of the Snark.”  He observes:

Humpty Dumpty’s theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all.  For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious”.  Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious”.

Carroll is referring to something Humpty Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland3 in order to explain how a reader might be able to decode the made-up words in his famous nonsense poem, “The Jabberwocky.”

A few years later, while scouring footnotes in Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice (which I read nightly for over a decade), I discovered that Alice in Wonderland was actually the first time portmanteau was used in this linguistic sense.  Way to be awesome, Lewis Carroll!

 

 


  1. The title of Lisa’s blog makes me think all blogs should be named after things Obi Wan said.
  2. I find a beautiful irony in the fact that the word portmanteau is a portmanteau — being a combination of “porter” (to carry) and “manteau” (cloak).
  3. “You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
WTF, OED?

The other day, I came across this positively depressing bit of news about the upcoming edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  This dictionary, long the bastion of tweedy old-wordery, has announced that it will henceforth be including a series of internet acronyms in its pages — including OMG, LOL, ATWWNMTOYDYI1, and, even worse, the heart symbol.

That’s right, this guy: ♥

The inclusion of these words depresses me for three main reasons:  First, these additions make me feel like a 20-something curmudgeon.  Second, many of these phrases are things I don’t understand. Third and most important), these new “words” are incredibly lame … In thousands of years when some alien culture digs up a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, they will learn how stupid we were and laugh at us.

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive about this.  You see, I have a deep and abiding love for the OED.  This is not just some dictionary; it’s the most ambitious literary project of, well, all time.  The OED consists of 20 volumes containing 600,000 words.  And it’s not just definitions — it also chronicles the shifting usage of these words, as well as listing significant published appearances.2  When I was courting Mary, I bought her a copy of this dictionary.

The OED isn’t the only culprit.  A few years ago, Scrabble updated their dictionary to include “qi” “xi” and “za” … not only are some of these words idiotic (I’m looking at you, “za”), but they also throw off the mechanics of the game. On the other hand (OTOH), at least the topic lets me post this picture of a Scrabble-tile keyboard …

UPDATE – this morning the New Yorker published a piece that defends the changes to the OED.  It’s worth a read.


  1. Which of course translates to “Adding these words will not make teenagers open your dictionary, you idiots.”
  2. For those interested, author Simon Winchester has written a fantastic book about the 75-year creation of the first OED called The Professor and the Madman, which details one of the dictionary’s key contributors, an insane murderer who worked remotely from his prison cell!
Pop “Quiz”

Yesterday Mary was looking up the origins of the word “quiz” — specifically wanting to know at what point it became a verb related to testing.1  Her research led to this 18th century quote: “Everybody seems to set me down as a butt made on purpose to be ridiculed … as if I had ‘This man is quizable’ pasted in large letters upon my back.”2

Nice to know that some things never change …


  1. It originally meant “an odd or eccentric person in character or appearance” (OED).
  2. From The Quiz No. 13. (1797).