So That’s What You Call It!

by Elise Hempel


Recently, needing a change from my standard breakfast of yogurt, I decided to make myself a nice omelet with cheddar cheese and tomatoes. Not having made an omelet for many months now, I'm out of practice a bit, but everything was going fine, my omelet cooking nicely in our cast-iron pan – not sticking, not burning, looking restaurant-pretty. I was almost done, almost ready to perform the fold, and then…. And then somehow, suddenly, I had a combination of omelet and scrambled eggs, or what, from here on out, I shall call a “scromelet.”

My partner, Ray, informed me a few months ago that this “linguistic blend of words” (Wikipedia) – not to be confused with a compound, in which both/all of the spliced-together words remain fully intact – is called a “portmanteau” (port-man-toe), a term I'd never heard before. My 2002 American Heritage college dictionary defines “portmanteau” first as “a leather suitcase with two hinged compartments” and goes on to define a “portmanteau word.” And a British website tells me that the word “portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau originating from the French word “portemanteau” which blends “porter” (to carry) and “manteau” (cloak). A further look at Wikipedia also reveals another interesting fact – that the term “was first used in this context by Lewis Carroll in the book Through the Looking-Glass (1871).”

Little did I know that I'd been creating portmanteaus for many years already. And since the term has come up, Ray and I can't seem to stop ourselves from creating them almost continuously. For instance, our dog, Groucho (neither “cockapoo” nor “puggle” but, as genetic testing revealed, a combination of Akita, greyhound and boxer, or a “groxita”), who likes to lie (with his front paws crossed) across the threshold between the porch and the living-room, or between the dining-room and the kitchen, is now a “threshound.”

And the enchiladas we plan to make with shredded leftover turkey from our Thanksgiving dinner (or perhaps it will be “brunch”) we have started calling “turkiladas.” (Other portmanteaus relating to our upcoming U.S. Holiday are the now-famous “turducken,” the vegetarian favorite “tofurkey,” and that lovely utensil combo, “spork.”)

Now that I know the term, I'm also beginning to realize that portmanteaus abound. And I'm thinking about why. It's for brevity, of course: No need to explain, for example, what method of body disposal was used to produce “cremains”; no need to ask, when you're without a plastic utensil and about to eat a styrofoam cupful of Wendy's chili, “Can you grab me one of those fork-and-spoon-combination-things?” It's for brevity, and practicality, but it's also just plain fun. And I'm guessing it brings out the love of language in many people who would claim they don't have such a love or never knew it. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention during past presidential elections, but I'm noticing a lot of portmanteus coming out of this one, and something about the mixing of words this time around seems “fitting,” some sort of reflection of all the mixed messages, mixed feelings. Television has given us the noun “condemnorsement” to sum up Paul Ryan's simultaneous and contradictory condemnation and endorsement of Trump, as well as the verb “camplaining” (what Trump is doing when he complains of election-rigging as he campaigns).

I've been coming up with my own portmanteaus this election season, thinking of both Hillary and Trump. Perhaps Hillary could save her stamina by turning her Stronger Together slogan into the shorter “Strogether.” And maybe Trump could simplify by blending the word “disaster” with every category of American government there is (military, economy, etc.; “NAFTAster”?) or making “Crooked Hillary” even catchier (“Crookillary”? “Crillary”?). Personally, as for why anyone believed Trump was the winner of any of the debates, I was “strumped.” And I'm “Trumbfounded” about why anyone would vote for him. If Hillary can get through these final days without any more email troubles and becomes our first female president, I'll be absolutely “exHillarated.” I wonder what will be the first order of business on her “vagenda” (I just saw that one on Facebook….).