A portmanteau does so much more than hold your coat

Athleisure. Brunch. Franglais. What do all these words have in common? They’re known as portmanteau words, which combine portions of two (or more) individual words to create one new single word that represents a specific thing or concept. They are similar to, but not the same as, compound words such as houseboat or blackberry, which combine two entire words.

The word portmanteau is itself an example of the genre: from the French “porter” (to hold) and “manteau” (coat), it means a coat holder (a bag or suitcase to carry one’s coat). This type of word is common in other languages as well. Imagine my joy when I discovered that the excellent and mordant English portmanteau “mansplain” (when a man explains something to a woman that she already understands, because he assumes that as a woman she cannot possibly be as informed as he) has been translated into French as “mecspliquer” – a perfect and biting mash-up of “mec” (guy) and “m’expliquer” (to explain to me).

The concept is not a new one, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was invented purposely for social media. Celebrity “portmanteaus” such as Brangelina and Bennifer have been popping up for years now, while the aforementioned athleisure arrived with the trend towards wearing Lululemon yoga pants everywhere. “Bromance” seems tailor-made to describe Judd Apatow movies as well as friendships between famous guys such as Damon and Affleck, Clooney and Pitt, etc.

I love a good, zingy use of a portmanteau, but I do find their overuse to be irritating. The writer comes across as trying too hard to be trendy or cool (seriously, tech folks, stop trying to make “phablet” happen, it’s terrible and contrived) when there are other perfectly decent words that would work. Not every celebrity couple needs a portmanteau (Hiddleswift?) nor does every new fashion trend. It’s OK to call them ankle boots; “shooties” is just plain goofy.

Everyone wants to be the person who coins a word or phrase that goes viral these days, which probably accounts for the massive outpouring of new portmanteaus we’ve seen in recent years. The media love them because they’re like shorthand: Brexit (rather than Britain leaving the EU), slacktivism (liking charity stuff on Facebook instead of doing charity work or donating cash), and sexting (sending sexually-themed text messages) save a lot of column inches, but don’t overdo it. At best, you can come across as lazy; at worst, half your readers won’t actually understand what you’re getting at, and do you think they’re motivated enough to go and look it up? Unlikely.

Bottom line: portmanteaus are fun and pithy, but can be easily overused. Proceed with caution and be certain it’s the clearest and best way of getting your point across.

And for the record, my favourite is the one I heard from friends with a dog: They know it’s time to sweep the house when she starts nibbling “floord’oeuvres.”

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