June 22, 2012

Why don't portmanteau words catch on?

Going over many sources of slang, one thing that pops out is how abysmal the success rate is for portmanteau words. That's where you cut out pieces from two words and splice them together, the new word suggesting some combination of the two original words. Like "Rethuglican" from "thug" and "Republican" -- won't last.

Here we see the main problem with these words: they're too self-aware, and every use is an overly eager attempt to make the listener laugh. "Huh-huh, Rethuglicans -- get it?" Yeah, we get it, you moron. Oral communication is not very conscious, since that's the mode we're adapted to, and so anything that halts the flow of speech in a conversation won't take off the ground. That's why you find those obsessed with portmanteau words in the nerdy parts of the literate culture.

The few good portmanteau words are totally transparent as for the two words joined in surgery, and also what is implied. "Stagflation" works because only one word will come to anyone's mind that beings with "stag-", and only one that ends in "-flation". If you were paying attention to the economy in the '70s, it wasn't too hard to see what was meant. And unlike "Rethuglican," the term isn't meant to be a self-aware joke every time it's uttered. It's not a put-down of the out-group by the in-group, but a term that united everyone who felt like the economy was the worst of both worlds back then.

Even a seemingly straightforward combo like "netiquette" requires a moment's pause to get what they mean. Obviously one of the words is "etiquette," but lots of words begin with "n-". Oh wait, it's the entire word "net" that's been spliced in. OK, so you mean like etiquette on the internet? Damn, though, why did you have to make me think so hard about it -- just say "online etiquette" or "internet manners" or something simple.

Pleasing ornamentation makes the thing easier to recall (for example through repetition), and most portmanteau words do the opposite, making us reflect consciously on the derivation, rather than retrieve it automatically, and even more quickly than we would if it lacked a nice little ornament. "Back-breaking" work, a "ball-busting" wife, or some fat "cockblock" with a "tramp stamp" -- those are reliable repetition-for-memory devices at work, giving these neologisms an infectious quality.

This highlights a key weakness of portmanteau words -- they are designed for self-aggrandizement (look at how clever I am), whereas alliterative and rhyming phrases are designed for the benefit of the listener (easier to recall). Oral culture tends to be pretty egalitarian, so new words that violate that ethos are doomed from the start. They'll only be successful, if at all, in a literary context, and even then only when there's a personality cult -- why else would you help to regularly boost someone else's status?

(That distinguishes them from another autistic favorite, the acronym, which as nerdy as it is, still does not pretend to be a clever turn of phrase. Its total lack of imagination maintains the egalitarian ethos of the group that uses it.)

So, the more self-regarding and the more cut-off from other people you are in real life, the more likely you are to rely on portmanteau words. That has to be why they litter just about all science-fiction writing. The enjoyable and empathetic ones like Philip K. Dick try to keep them to a minimum, although even he can't help himself sometimes, like "mentufacturer." A transparent compound like "empathy box" works so much better.

Skimming through a list of words and phrases coined by Shakespeare, I didn't find any portmanteau examples. There's plenty of alliteration, though -- bated breath, dead as a doornail, fancy-free, kill with kindness, lackluster, primrose path, short shrift, and so on.

It would be hard to study pormanteau coining over time, since they are so unsuccessful. Still, it seems like over the past 20 years we've gotten more carried away with them -- netiquette, e-tail, Rethuglican, glibertarian, etc. One clear consequence of our declining oral culture is our growing inability to coin infectious new words, which relies so much on the sounds of speech. We think that just because a bunch of dorks use some buzzword on Twitter, it's got legs. Unless it's technical jargon, though, a word like that with little use in speech has little chance of survival.


  1. >The enjoyable and empathetic ones like Philip K. Dick try to keep them to a minimum, although even he can't help himself sometimes, like "mentufacturer." A transparent compound like "empathy box" works so much better.

    This piqued my interest. I found a site listing Dickian coinages:


    I went through the list and copied the ones that, had they been placed in a "lineup", I would have identified as being unmistakably from Philip K Dick stories (I've read most of them and re-read the short stories many times), and which evoke distinct memories of the object and the context in which it exists:

    Artiforg (portmanteau)
    Autofac (portmanteau)
    Electric Sheep
    Empathy Box
    Homeopape (portmanteau)
    Mood Organ
    Reality Tape
    Perky Pat
    Robant (portmanteau)
    Scramble Suit
    Voight-Kampff Empathy Test

    Only 4 portmanteaus out of 19 memorable phrases, and they are some of the less evocative ones; I guess this supports your thesis.

    Incidentally I find Dick's titles to be particularly memorable; who could resist reading "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch", "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" or "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said"?

    Two of his main rivals in this respect are the better films in the Giallo genre ("Don't Torture a Duckling", "Lizard in a Woman's Skin", "The House with Laughing Windows") and progressive rock albums ("In the Court of the Crimson King", "Larks' Tongues in Aspic", "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway").

    Philip K Dick, Gialli and progressive rock all flourished from the mid-60s to mid-70s; perhaps there is a connection therein.

  2. You see this trend with celebrity nicknames: "JLO", "Scarjo", etc.

    One factor may be the lack of competition, created by a cocooning culture. when everyone's out and about, competition for being clever and witty is fierce.

  3. "frenemy" is another one.

  4. From a past response that I missed:

    "Plenty of movies back then showed girls dating and doing things with boys who their friends don't find to be date-worthy material. Jennifer Jason Leigh's character in Fast Times, Winona Ryder's character in Heathers, Tina in Nightmare on Elm Street, Ariel in Footloose..."

    Yeah, definetly. They play 80s music in the afternoon at my gym, and the song "Don't Talk to Strangers" was playing - a girl's small-town boyfriend begs her not to talk to some handsome community outsider.

    On the flipside, do you think that women are being pressured into sex with guys they don't want during a falling-crimes time? I've often wondered if those drinking games that Millenials love so much are designed to get women passed out...

  5. Ugh, I don't want to post yet again, but here's one more perspective:

    Portmanteau words are just a general sign of immaturity. When I was a little kid, I used to create portmanteau words. Most little kids do. But when I got older, I realized how unimpressive they are, since people react negatively when they are used.

    That being, the rise of pormanteau is another symptom of cocooning and the resultant lack of feedback from other human beings - and therefore ultimately a stunted development.

  6. I use acronyms out of laziness, but I read them out as what they stand for rather than as a sequence of letters. I don't know if this is typical.

  7. Agnostic,
    Off-topic. Related to your post on Millenial suicides, what do you make of the anti-bullying hysteria? I was at my local Books-A-Million about a month ago and they had a table devoted to books about bullying.
    Four theories I have:
    *it's a horrible problem, but probably the best it's been since the 70s which isn't saying much.

    *the kids really are becoming more sociopathic. What goes on in schools may be a precursor of what is to come and not reflective of society at large.

    *the kids may or may not becoming more sociopathic, but average and intelligent kids are forced to be with the bad kids due to more strident liberalism, at least at the elementary level, don't know about middle school or high school (even the gifted can't get away, in my district, "disadvantaged" kids are allowed in with an IQ of an entire standard deviation lower than the cut-off for the white students).

    *This is really about normalizing homosexuality. Turning it into a relatable issue like bullying to stir up empathy? Articles about "notable" bullying cases feature too many gays to make sense and they're a stretch. I mean, discussing a ten-year-old girl who hung herself and then launch into how a dyke homecoming "King" got a lot of hate mail the next day???

    One final thought. We always talk about verbal and physical bullying, but I can tell you, and remember, that sexual molestation and bullying occurs as much or more. I remember in seventh-grade (1991), there was this white girl with a big rear who had a clique of black guys grabbing it every day. Sometimes they simulated sex acts behind her. Once, one of the just started dry-humping, violently and quickly, the wall and moaning loudly saying this was how he would f*** Jessica.
    Every. Single. Day.

    I saw worse, but those were usually really bad one time incidents (molestation of breasts, etc.)
    Anyway, nobody is talking about that kind which kind of makes me lean to it being more political.

  8. A more recent King Crimson song featuring lots of repetition in the title is Happy With What You Have to be Happy With. Certainly not as good as their old stuff, but nothing since their "Red" album is.

  9. Fripp is too good a musician to fade away completely. But modern prog and "neo-prog" in general provides an interesting contrast with the 60s-70s genre.

    Broadly speaking, the choice is between throwing taste out of the window (Dream Theater), being insipid and derivative (Marillion), or being tongue-in-cheek about one's prog credentials (Muse).

    There are/were a few genuinely talented prog-ish bands in Porcupine Tree, Tool and Radiohead, and they succeed by adopting the spirit of the age (i.e. by being depressive and edgy, rather than ebullient). Then there's The Mars Volta, who were the exception that proves the rule for all of two albums.

    I know Agnostic has his high-crime-high-extraversion theory to explain things like this. I'm more inclined to predict cultural high spirits according to the general level of excitement or fear about the future. Art as extravagant as prog rock could only flourish as it did given circumstances of an abrupt lessening of social restrictions, resulting in a high level of uncertainty, excitement and anticipation about the social future.

    Just like the neo-prog bands, I don't think that hipsters like Tarantino (writer of "Grindhouse") really understand what Giallo is about. The hokey slasher plots, like Jon Anderson's lyrics, are a kind of distraction to keep certain parts of the brain occupied, and the real, highly extravagant art is going on elsewhere - although the lesser films under this umbrella do tend more towards exploitation. It's a type of art film that would struggle to find an audience today, even if someone was in the mood to make one - and the same goes for singing in "Kobaian" or releasing anything as daringly whimsical as "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn".

    To extend this theory, I'd suggest that the drop in sociability and cultural ebullience around the early 90s is related to the ending of the Cold War, and the brief resurgence in the mid-2000s was due to the heating up of the wars in the Middle East. As of 2012, the future seems dull, grey and featureless to most Westerners - this seems a better explanation for cultural lifelessness and cocooning than the crime rate.

  10. "what do you make of the anti-bullying hysteria?"

    The Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that fights among high schoolers are down or flat over the past 20 years, so it has nothing to do with kids being more likely to get picked on physically.

    Part of it is a pro-homo agenda, since primary school-age boys have not yet been indoctrinated to see faggots as saints. And like always they'll target the more effeminate and gay-seeming boys.

    But even without the gay angle, there'd still be a strong anti-"bullying" movement. It's derived more from the self-esteem and helicopter parent trends.

  11. "high-crime-high-extraversion theory to explain things like this. I'm more inclined to predict cultural high spirits according to the general level of excitement or fear about the future."

    Rising crime rates are what brings out that fear or excitement about the future, though. It's one of the clearest signals that the old rules and ways have begun to break down, that there's a new ecology governed by new "laws" between individuals and groups.

    How else can criminals find an easier way of exploiting others, and why do more people seem to be turning to a life of crime than before?

    Usually the first half of a rising-crime period is marked by an unsettled but still technocratic approach -- a hold-over from the technocratic faith of falling-crime times. That would be the early idealists of the French Revolution, the Progressive Era, and the New Frontier and Great Society programs.

    When these inevitably fail to flatten or reverse the rising levels of violence, the mood shifts toward the apocalyptic. Even the best and brightest couldn't solve the problem, so we'll have to find a way forward ourselves. That's like the post-Napoleonic phase of the Romantic-Gothic period, the Jazz Age, and the mid-'70s to early '90s.

    I think the presence of a strong in-group / out-group rivalry blunts this apocalyptic zeitgeist, if anything. From WWI through the Roaring Twenties, which includes the early '30s, there was no Cold War, but the air was thick with mysticism, cults, machine age anxieties, all that stuff.

    If such things came from society against society clashes, it should've died out at Versailles. But it only reached a more fever pitch during the '20s and early '30s. That's because of the rising crime rates within each society, making people think that it's not just the standard old "invasion of bad guys" story, but something fundamentally new with us ourselves.

  12. I haven't listened to all classic prog rock, but I'd put that more with the cyberpunk stuff from the '80s, also little of which I've read. It has a little too much self-conscious awareness of Tackling Big Themes.

    Dick's books read much more like they were written under a trance, like he's just a mouthpiece. And he gets light-hearted and gut-bustingly funny now and then. His characters are effortlessly easy to relate to.

    Musically, that brings to mind the New Wave and synth rock stuff from the earlier part of the '80s. Duran Duran's first album, Talk Talk's first two albums, Sweet Dreams and Touch by Eurythmics, Billy Idol's first two albums, etc.

    There's both an anxiety and an excitement about what the future holds, much like the Art Deco feeling -- combining a primitivist or Romantic longing for the organic past, but also working in a machine age aesthetic to suggest that they aren't incompatible with each other.

  13. Prohibition was to a significant extent was ingroup-outgroup thing. The bootleggers were to a significant extent immigrants concentrated in the cities. Old stock rural protestants were some of the biggest constituents for "dry" politics. There was even a gender divide, as the suffragists (correctly) viewed alcohol as implicated in domestic violence and dysfunctional families (the term was originally coined with reference to alcoholics).

    Also, Fripp is God. Though being tasteless I can enjoy Dream Theater as well.

  14. >Musically, that brings to mind the New Wave and synth rock stuff from the earlier part of the '80s. Duran Duran's first album, Talk Talk's first two albums, Sweet Dreams and Touch by Eurythmics, Billy Idol's first two albums, etc.

    I think the Vangelis soundtrack to Blade Runner nailed it. Somewhere in between classic prog (Vangelis's prog pedigree includes this) and the type of music you mention. Dick also said the visuals of that film were exactly what he had envisioned when writing "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", although the plot is more of a counterpart to the book than a straightforward transposition.

  15. I want to piont out that the sort of "girl-on-girl" bullying seems unique to falling-crime eras. I

  16. Paneed: Pan sauteed.


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