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Do You Know What’s a Portmanteau? You Use It Every Day!

 Even if you have never heard the term portmanteau before, chances are you are using portmanteau in your speech quite often. If you have ever said the words brunch, sitcom, or spam, then yes, you know portmanteaus. In a literary sense, a portmanteau is a word that is created by merging two different words together. So, brunch, for example, is a combination of the words breakfast and lunch. The new word draws meaning from the existing words it's made of - brunch is a late morning meal, eaten instead of breakfast and lunch. In this article, we're going to dive deep into the world of portmanteaus - how did this concept originate, how it affected our use of language and a few surprising portmanteaus you probably didn't know as such!

How did the term portmanteau originate? 

What do you know? The word portmanteau itself is actually formed by two French words - porter, which means to carry, and '‘manteau" meaning mantle (A mantle is a kind of cloak, the most famous example being the one Little Red Riding Hood wore on her way to grandma's house). Therefore, portmanteau's literal definition is a bag or a suitcase used to carry your mantle around. 

So how did the word Portmentau go from describing an old-fashioned suitcase to being a literary device? The first to introduce it in that sense was Lewis Carroll, the wordplay-loving author of Alice in Wonderland. In one of Caroll's books, Through the Looking Glass, Alice discovers a poem called 'Jabberwocky', which is filled with strange words. Humpty-Dumpty explains to the confused Alice that these words are "like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word."

What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words, Alice in Wonderland

Blending is a common source of new terms because it's relatively straightforward language play, that allows creativity and, well, just having fun with language. When people neologize, whether whimsically or with serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words without even planning to do so. 

Ever since Carroll coined this new meaning in 1882, countless '‘portmanteau words" have been created. Many of them became so integrated into everyday language that you probably wouldn't even know they started out as portmanteaus, while others were short-lived or remained limited to certain sub-languages, like technical terms or slang words, for example. Here are a few examples for words you would probably be surprised to learn to have portmanteau etymologies. 

1. What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words, endorphin

Believed to originate in the 1970s, the English word Endorphin is made up of two elements. The first half of the word comes from the Fench ‘endogène’ (endogenous in English), meaning ‘growing from within’. The second element is morphine, a type of pain medication. Combined together, these words created the perfect definition for the chemicals which are naturally produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. They work similarly to opioids like morphine, but they come from within our bodies rather than from an external source. 


2.What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words, electrocute

The first element of this word, electro, is quite obviously derived from ‘electric’ or electricity. The second element is from the word ‘execute’. Electrocute is a good example of a word whose meaning has been diluted over the years. When it was first coined in the late 19th century, the word specifically referred to death by an electric shock, as this method of execution was first used in 1890. In reference to accidental death, it is believed the term electrocution was being used by 1909.

Over the years, it came to be accepted as being just injured from an electric shock, too. However, going by the original intent of the word, if you experience a strong electric shock and are still alive afterward, you technically haven’t been electrocuted. 

3.What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words motel
'Motel' isn’t simply an arbitrary variation of the word hotel. While hotel comes from the French hôtel, a 17th-century term referring to a building that sees frequent visitors, motel is actually a 20th-century portmanteau combining the existing hotel and the word motor. The term entered dictionaries after World War II as a response to the rise of cross-country highways and the need to accommodate roadside travelers. 

4. What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words smog

Most, if not all, know that smog is the thick, often chemical-infused fog that is common in industrial areas. Dr. Henry Des Voeux first coined the word in 1905 to distinguish the difference between natural fog and the dangerous smoke emitted by coal factories in London at the time. 

You guessed it, the two elements making up the word smog, are smoke and fog. 

5. What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words splatter

While splatter may sound like an onomatopoeia, a word named after the sound it’s associated with (like buzz or hiss), it is actually a combination of two other words. Splatter is made up of splash and spatter, the latter meaning to scatter small particles of a substance. Splatter dates all the way back to 1785, and interestingly, we tend to use it much more often today than its progenitor, spatter. 

6. What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words stash

If you weren’t aware of the term being a portmanteau at all, don’t worry. Stash is an example of a word that’s been so well integrated into language that its etymology has been largely forgotten. It can even be used as both a verb and a noun. 

According to Dicitionay.com, 'stash' is a mash-up of the words stow and cache. Because of the way it’s spelled - stash rather than stache - many people mistakenly assume it’s linguistically linked to the word cash.

Related: 7 Short Latin Phrases Everyone Should Know

7.What's Portmanteau? Surprising Etymologies of Common Words vitamin

The word vitamin was originally coined in 1912 by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk. The first element of the word comes from the Latin ‘vita’ (meaning Life) and the second element comes from the English ‘amine’, because at the time, vitamins were thought to contain amino acids. 

When scientists discovered it isn’t true the ‘e’ was removed, and the word was left with the suffix ‘in’, which is used for  ‘neutral substances of undefined composition’.

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