Arts & Culture

Double duty

You can quote them: portmanteau coinages from brunch to blog.

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is working on the second edition of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon.

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon.

Send your quotation leads and questions to “You Can Quote Them,” Yale Alumni Magazine, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, or View full image

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, brought to literary productions such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a mind fascinated by mathematical logic, fantasy, and language. An example of his linguistic bent is the poem “Jabberwocky,” appearing in the 1871 Alice sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. “Jabberwocky” contains playful neologisms: brillig, slithy, toves, and more. Of these, the one invention that has entered common usage is chortle.

Chortle appears to have been formed as an amalgamation of chuckle and snort. Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that a similar blend in the poem, slithy, “means ‘lithe and slimy.’ . . . You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Carroll’s use here of portmanteau, a kind of luggage with two compartments, led to the linguistic term “portmanteau word”: a word derived from parts of two or more other words.

Chortle and the other “Jabberwocky” blends were not the first such words. In 1812, for example, a political cartoon in the Boston Gazette labeled the tortuous, monster-like shape of a particular Massachusetts electoral district “The Gerry-mander.” This was a combination of the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry, who had presided over the redistricting, and the word salamander.

After being christened by Carroll, portmanteau words have proliferated in English etymology. Some of the more successful ones include biopic, bodacious (bold plus audacious), cheeseburger, guesstimate, meld (melt plus weld), motel, napalm (naphthene plus palmitate), sitcom, televangelist, vitamin (vital plus amine), and workaholic. Among recent additions to the list from technology are bit (binary plus digit), blog (web plus log), camcorder, pixel (picture plus element), and Wikipedia. Popular culture has contributed bromance, gaydar, staycation, three-peat, and Brangelina.

The coiners and places of origin of most portmanteau words are elusive, but I’ve uncovered intriguing early uses of two of the more prominent portmanteau words. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for brunch is from Punch in 1896. In that 1896 issue, Punch credited the coinage to Guy Beringer in Hunter’s Weekly in 1895—but the only surviving copy of the latter periodical is in the British Library, which was unable to verify it for me. However, I found the following occurrence in the Independent (New York) of August 22, 1895: “Breakfast is ‘brekker’ in the Oxford tongue; when a man makes lunch his first meal of the day it becomes ‘brunch.’”

Another eminent portmanteau is smog. The OED and many other sources credit Dr. Henry Antoine des Voeux for its invention, in a 1905 paper he delivered at the Public Health Congress in London. However, earlier evidence exists in the writings of our most incisive lexicographer. Ambrose Bierce, who would later write The Devil’s Dictionary, declared in the Wasp (San Francisco) of December 6, 1884, that “Mr. Edmund Yates, by combining the words ‘smoke’ and ‘fog,’ gave to the London atmosphere the graphic name of ‘smog.’”

Bierce here completes the circle for us, because Edmund Yates was the magazine editor to whom Charles Dodgson submitted, in 1856, a poem for publication and a list of four possible pen names. Yates rejected “Edgar Cuthwellis,” “Edgar U. C. Westhill,” and “Louis Carroll,” and chose “Lewis Carroll.” (“Lewis” was derived from Lutwidge and “Carroll” from Charles.) Yates went on to publish a number of pieces by Dodgson. Could he also have imparted to Dodgson, somewhere along the way, an enthusiasm for portmanteaulogizing?

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