portmanteau

downloadHave you ever had one of those moments when you feel like you are turning into your parents? Well, this seems to be happening to me more often lately, especially since I got my AARP card. Example: for about the past six months or so, I have been taping and watching Jeopardy every day.

Last week Alex Trebek announced that one of the categories was “Portmanteau Words.” Huh?  The word “portmanteau” sounded vaguely familiar, but whatever was niggling in the far corners of my memory did not sync with the questions, like “What is a bromance?”

So with trusty Google at my fingertips, I set off on yet another word quest. It turns out that “portmanteau” dates back to the 1500s, and originally was defined as “a large suitcase that opens into two parts.” Now that meaning sounded somewhat familiar. But what does it have to do with “bromance”?

One of the great things about language is the way it ebbs and flows over time. The imagery of the two suitcase halves being brought together has led to the word’s transformation. Lewis Carroll first linked portmanteau with words in his 1882 book Through the Looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty tries to describe to Alice the meanings of new, made-up words (“slithy” = “lithe + slimy” and “mimsy” = “flimsy + miserable”), by saying:

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

Examples abound. Consider smog, blog, brunch, email and sitcom, to name a few. It’s hard to recall a time when those words did not exist.

So now I’m prepared for the next time the category shows up on Jeopardy. Bring it on, Alex.

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