Vocabulary Tips: What Is a Portmanteau?
  • 3-minute read
  • 14th November 2019

Vocabulary Tips: What Is a Portmanteau?

Ever stopped at a motel for brunch? Or perhaps for a portmanteau or two? These are words, like motel and brunch, formed by mixing two other terms. Some are common in speech and writing, so you may have used them without realizing they were portmanteaus. But you can also use portmanteaus creatively. So how do these words work?

What Is a Portmanteau?

As mentioned above, a portmanteau is a word made up of two words. We can see this if we look more closely at the examples above: motel and brunch.

As a combination of “motor” and “hotel,” “motels” are small hotels for motorists located near roads and highways.

Motels are not always the classiest establishments.
Motels are not always the classiest establishments.

And with “brunch,” we have a combination of “breakfast” and “lunch,” denoting a meal after breakfast but before lunch.

Contractions also combine two words, but only words that would ordinarily appear in sequence, such as how “do not” becomes “don’t.” And, importantly, you don’t need an apostrophe to show where words join in a portmanteau. Contractions and portmanteaus are therefore quite different.

Interestingly, “portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau! In the 19th century, a portmanteau was a suitcase with two equal parts. Its name came from combining the French words porter, meaning “carry,” and manteau, meaning “cloak,” as these cases were used for carrying clothes while traveling.

Its modern sense of a word made up of two words came from children’s author Lewis Carroll. In the novel Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty’s character explains two portmanteaus:

Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable.” You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.

So a “portmanteau” is like a suitcase packed with two words!

Using Portmanteaus Creatively

Portmanteaus are a great way to get creative with language. We’ve already seen Lewis Carroll’s explanation of “slithy” and “mimsy,” which were terms he invented for his famous poem “Jabberwocky.”

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood.

The key is picking two words that sound good together and combining their meanings to create something new. Why not give it a go in your writing?

Examples of Portmanteaus

Finally, let’s look at some words you may or may not know are portmanteaus:

Portmanteau

Words Combined

Meaning

Spork

Spoon + Fork

A utensil that you can use as a spoon or fork.

Dumbfounded

Dumb + Confounded

To be struck speechless with surprise or confusion.

Infotainment

Information + Entertainment

Material that intends to both entertain and inform.

Emoticon

Emotion + Icon

The use of punctuation marks and other characters to depict an emotion, e.g., a smiley.

🙂

Podcast

iPod + Broadcast

A digital audio broadcasting format first popularized via the iPod media player.

Internet

International + Network

A network of interconnected computers.

Smog

Smoke + Fog

Fog mixed with smoke or other pollutants.

Brexit

Britain + Exit

The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Jazzercise

Jazz + Exercise

A combination of jazz dance and exercise.

Pokémon

Pocket + Monsters

A stylised play on the Japanese brand name “Pocket Monsters.”

And however you use portmanteaus in your writing, we have expert editors available to help you ensure your documents are always error free!

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