Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Humpty Dumpty packs his portmanteau

with 28 comments

throught the looking-glass

Image by cambiodefractal via Flickr

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that the word ‘slithy’ from the poem Jabberwocky (also by Carroll) is a combination of ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’:    

“You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”    

And so we have Carroll to thank for the expression ‘portmanteau word’. It’s difficult to improve on Humpt’s definition, but the Oxford Dictionary of English has a go:    

A word blending the sounds and combining the meaning of two others, for example, ‘motel’ and ‘brunch’.    

The Exploring the Arts Foundation site has a lovely section on portmanteau words. The following short extract from it is about the word ‘chortle’, also coined by Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass:    

Here’s an example of a true portmanteau word: chortle. Chortle is a combination of chuckle and snort. Although chortle is composed of chuckle and snort, a chortle is neither a chuckle nor a snort. And the word isn’t formed by placing chuckle and snort side-by-side; if it were, it would be chucklesnort.    

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines ‘chortle’ as a ‘noisy, gleeful laugh’.    

There’s a wonderful list of portmanteau words on Answers.com, including:    

  • Affluenza – a blend of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’, meaning ‘a psychological malaise supposedly affecting young, wealthy people’. (Oxford Dictionary of English definition)
  • Smog – a blend of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’.
  • Digerati – a blend of ‘digital’ and ‘literati’, meaning expert IT people.
  • Emoticon – a blend of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’. 🙂
  • Bollywood – a blend of ‘Bombay’ and ‘Hollywood’.

 “Is that all?” Alice timidly asked.    

“That’s all,” said Humpty Dumpty. “Good-bye.”


28 Responses

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  1. ODE says probably comprising chuckle and snort.

    I’m not buying it, mainly because, as you point out, it doesn’t work too well. Carroll, as so often, probably cobbled it up out of whole cloth.


    26/10/2010 at 7:24 pm

  2. As an aside, the ODE does rather seem to lack the quality control of the OED, with opinion sometimes taking the place of hard etymology, of which this is a good example.


    26/10/2010 at 7:27 pm

    • Hi, Ron — I don’t think I said that it doesn’t work too well, did I? (Feeling a tad confused.) I have the OED, but it’s too heavy to drag from the shelf except in a word emergency. Not too many of those happening round here. I’ve come across another Carroll-coined word since writing the post: ‘galumph’, which I really like and use quite often — I didn’t realise it is also from Through the Looking-Glass. Possibly a mix of ‘gallop’ and ‘triumph’. ODE definition: ‘To move in a clumsy, ponderous, or noisy manner.’


      26/10/2010 at 7:41 pm

  3. “I don’t think I said that it doesn’t work too well, did I?”

    Not in so many words, but that was the impression I took away from it.

    Galumph “Possibly a mix of ‘gallop’ and ‘triumph’.” Now you’re really pushing your luck 😉 How does triumph fit?

    I think, though, in all seriousness, trying to ascribe a derivation to words coined by a surrealist like Carroll is a tad futile. More often than not, there isn’t one.


    27/10/2010 at 10:27 am

    • A triumphant procession might be noisy? It’s all just a bit of fun and infotainment (<—–see what I did there?)!


      27/10/2010 at 11:30 am

      • Hmm… When I think of galumphing, I have an image of Gordon Brown in an egg and spoon race.


        27/10/2010 at 11:43 am

  4. Portmanteau is itself an interesting word. It’s from Fr “portemanteau” (carry + cloak) and, the folks at Oxford tell us, came into English in the mid-16th C. The primary meaning as a noun (one suspects now antiquated) is a two-compartment, stiff-leather valise. (In Fr, it can also mean hat rack or, on ships, davits.)

    The secondary meaning, as an adj., is combining two or more separate qualities. My dictionary gives the example of a “portmanteau movie composed of excerpts from the director’s most famous films.”

    “Portmanteau word,” as Carroll coined it, has its own dictionary entry (as you mentioned above).

    Michael Farrell

    27/10/2010 at 2:09 pm

    • Thank you, Michael, that’s really interesting. I didn’t know it could also mean ‘hat rack’ or ‘davit’. I think ‘portmanteau’ is a lovely word, redolent of travellers in a more romantic era. Here’s a lovely picture of a traditional portmanteau. (As a side issue, the plural is ‘portmanteaus’ or ‘portmanteaux’ — the website I’ve linked to there attempts neither.)


      27/10/2010 at 2:55 pm

      • x in French, s in English, I believe. Though x is also acceptable in English.


        27/10/2010 at 3:13 pm

        • Hi, Ron — yes either/or — and both better than ‘these portmanteau’ as the aforementioned website has it.


          27/10/2010 at 3:18 pm

          • Oh dear! Low standards on the Web – that’ll never do . . .


            27/10/2010 at 3:30 pm

      • I’ve taken the liberty of ordering a portmanteau, tri-cornered hat, and dress sword. Watch for me at Halloween.

        Michael Farrell

        27/10/2010 at 6:54 pm

        • Excellent choices! Can I have the portmanteau once you’ve finished with it?


          27/10/2010 at 7:15 pm

          • No. I’ll need it to bury me treasure.

            Michael Farrell

            27/10/2010 at 7:16 pm

            • I would have thought you needed all your treasure to pay for the portmanteau. (Worth it, though.)


              27/10/2010 at 7:21 pm

              • Now I’m having doubts about what exactly a portmanteau is; I don’t think the one pictured in the link I gave is a ‘traditional’ portmanteau — nice though it is. I think the lovely illustration accompanying this blog post (which includes a couple of good examples of the word being used in its original sense) shows a more traditional portmanteau.


                28/10/2010 at 10:02 am

                • Isn’t that a Gladstone Bag, Deborah?

                  A Gladstone Bag is a portmanteau, but not all portmanteaux are Gladstone bags.

                  Are we having fun yet?


                  28/10/2010 at 10:31 am

                  • Hi, Ron — it so could be. If only a portmanteau expert would pass by (on their way somewhere, carrying one) and put me right.


                    28/10/2010 at 10:34 am

                    • I have a feeling – though I don’t actually know – that portmanteau might be a generic term for bags of a certain size. It would help if we knew what a “manteau” was, and why it was being carried. 😉


                      28/10/2010 at 10:46 am

                    • A certain size perhaps, but the specific description is of a bag ‘opening into two equal parts’ — the illustration I originally found doesn’t seem to match that description. The second illustration could be a more likely contender.


                      28/10/2010 at 10:51 am

                    • The description in my trusty electronic ODE says a leather bag opening into two parts – so, a handbag could be a portmanteau. It is really a tad generic, as other that being of leather, and having two compartments, it could be pretty much any shape and size at all.


                      28/10/2010 at 10:50 am

                    • The ODE says ‘large travelling bag’ — so probably not a handbag, I wouldn’t have thought.


                      28/10/2010 at 10:55 am

                    • “. . . so probably not a handbag, I wouldn’t have thought.”

                      You didn’t know my ex!

                      Reply links have vanished, btw, in this section of the thread.

                      Off out to the pub soon – I’ll return to the fray tomorrow. Unless we have a new fray . . .


                      28/10/2010 at 11:00 am

  5. The Backpackers Club name has no apostrophe because, when it was founded, nobody knew where it should go. As a member, that annoyed the hell out of me for ages.

    But when I see something like that, and the plural “portmanteau,” I despair. (I don’t really, I fulminate!)

    If you don’t know, what’s wrong with asking somebody who does know, or looking it up? Rather than perpetuating an error.


    27/10/2010 at 3:34 pm

  6. I should add that there’s no shame in not knowing, but there should be in not caring!


    27/10/2010 at 3:35 pm

    • They probably only care about selling as many portmanteau as possible. And they’re not claiming to be grammar experts — I suspect it’s just a typo. It just reminded me that some people might wonder what the plural is.


      27/10/2010 at 4:03 pm

      • I see, too, that they sell Camp Items. How very progressive of them! 😉


        27/10/2010 at 4:10 pm

        • Interesting website, though – I could do serious damage to my beer money there!


          27/10/2010 at 4:26 pm

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