Blending in

Nov 16, 2010 by

Blending in is probably not what Sarah Palin wanted to achieve (and certainly not what she achieved) with her now-famous “refudiate”. But what it is is a blend, a form of word formation whereby two (or more) words are spliced together. In contrast to other forms of word formation, the spliced parts of words in blends are rarely morphemes. (Note that when two words are combined in their entirety, as in bagpipe or blackberry, the result is considered a compound word rather than a blend.)

While I agree with the critics who pounced on Palin’s made-up verb that “repudiate” would have done just fine (and “refute” doesn’t work in the context where Sarah Palin used “refudiate”), there is nothing wrong a priori with creating a blend (or any other type of word coinage) for the sake of expressivity or creativity.

Blends in particular are not uncommon in English (and as we shall see below, in other languages as well). There are several types of common blends. In one type it’s the beginning of one word and the end of another word that are combined together. Examples include: brunch = breakfast + lunch; simulcast = simultaneous + broadcast; and smog = smoke + fog.

Another type of blend involves combining the beginnings of two words, as in cyborg, which is a blend of cybernetic and organism.

A third type of blend involves splicing words around a common sequence of sounds, as with a word motel, which is a blend of motor and hotel, or with the word Californication, from a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which is a blend of California and fornication.

Finally, the fourth — and possibly the most creative — type of blends is portmanteau words (Note: the term “portmanteau” can also be used to describe an individual morpheme; this is something we might discuss in a future posting). To create a portmanteau word, multiple sounds from two component words are blended, while mostly preserving the sounds’ order. Lewis Carroll was well-known for these kinds of blends; in his book Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the coinage of the unusual words in “Jabberwocky”:

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

One example of Lewis Carroll’s portmanteau creations is “slithy”, which is a blend of lithe and slimy; another example is “mimsy”, which is a blend of flimsy and miserable.

Of course, Carroll’s portmanteau creations posed a challenge to the translators of his works. For example, in the famous Russian translation, parallel portmanteau words were created; for example, xlivkie (slithy) is a blend of xlipkie (slimy) and lovkie (lithe).

While portmanteau words are difficult to achieve (importantly, they must obey all the constraints on a possible English word) and are often considered a sign of Carroll’s verbal wit, blends of various types are very common in English. Nor are they something new. For example, brunch was introduced in Punch in 1896, while gerrymandering (a blend of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry‘s last name and salamander) was coined in 1812 to refers to Gerry’s scheme for politically contrived redistricting: one of the districts created resembled a salamander in outline.

Another example of a portmanteau word is Tanzania, a blend of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which was coined in 1964 for the newly independent African republic.

Blends (including portmanteau words) are very common among brand names, trademarks, as well as names of corporations and organizations. Thus, Wikipedia is an example of a portmanteau, which combines the word wiki with the word encyclopedia. Amtrak is a portmanteau of the words America and track and Conrail is a portmanteau of the words consolidated and rail. FedEx portmanteaus federal and Express (note that capitalization in the middle of the word highlights the blend nature of it). Similarly, AmEx is a portmanteau of the word American and Express. And did you know that Verizon is a portmanteau of veritas (truth) and horizon? Also, Nabisco is a blend of National Biscuit Company.

Among novel blends, not yet registered in dictionaries, are: spork (spoon + fork); skort (skirt + shorts); Pegacorn (pegasus + unicorn). Another combined creature — part lion and part tiger — is known alternatively as liger or tigon. In 2009, the term jeggings was coined to describe a pair of pants with the appearance of denim, but the stretchiness of leggings.

“Jeoportmanteau!” is a recurring category on the quiz show “Jeopardy!”. The category’s name is itself a portmanteau of “Jeopardy” and “portmanteau”. Responses in the category are portmanteaus constructed by fitting two words together; for example, the clue “Brett Favre or John Elway plus a knapsack” calls for the response “What is a ‘quarterbackpack’?”

Blends is also a creative way to refer to “supercouples”, as in “Billary” (referring to former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton) or “Brangelina” (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie).

In some cases, a certain bit of a word is used in blends so often that it becomes a de facto morpheme. This is what happened, for example, with -gate from Watergate, which is combined with (parts of) other words, as in Filegate, Nipplegate and Spygate — making -gate a de facto suffix meaning roughly ‘a contemporary scandal’. Similarly, the suffix “-holism” or “-holic”, created from the word “alcoholism” or “alcoholic”, can be added to a noun, creating a word that describes an addiction: for example, chocoholic means a person who is addicted to chocolate and workaholic is a person addicted to work (am I a blogoholic?). One of my favorite examples of suffix creations is the suffix -zilla, from Godzilla, which indicates a monstrous nature and gives rise to such blends as bridezilla (describing a demanding bride-to-be).

It should also be noted that blends (including portmanteau words) is not an English-only phenomenon. Examples of blends from other languages include the Russian Tolstoevsky referring to great Russian writers (from Tolstoy + Dostoevsky); the Icelandic tölva (‘computer’) from tala (‘digit; number’) and völva (‘seeress’); the Japanese karaoke, a blend of the Japanese word karappo (’empty’) and the English loanword ōkesutora (‘orchestra’); and such Modern Hebrew blends as arpiakh (‘smog’) from arafel (‘fog’) and piakh (‘soot’), midrahov (‘pedestrian promenade’) from midrakha (‘footpath’) and rehov (‘street’), and makhazemer (‘musical’) from makhazeh (‘a play’) and zémer (‘song’).


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