The art of the verbal collage
A ‘portmanteau’ is a word created by joining of the beginning of one word with the end of another. Lewis Carroll first used the term in his 1871 novella “Through the Looking Glass” – at the time, a ‘portmanteau’ was a type of suitcase that opened up into two equal sections. Correspondingly, Carroll used the term to designate a type of word that combines two separate words. This type of verbal patchwork often results in efficient (and very funny) expressions!
HEADS *AND* TAILS!
Franglais, pourriel, beurgeoisie, etc… these "mots-valises" (French for ‘portmanteau word’) are often referenced in dictionaries and have an actual meaning. Franglais is a combination of the words francais (French) and anglais (English), and is a widely-used term to signify a mixture of the two languages. The words pourriel (spam) and beurgeoisie (successful immigrant) are perhaps a bit more inventive, with pourriel being a combination of the words pourri (rotten) and courriel (email), and beurgeoisie being a combination of beur (young immigrant from North Africa) and bourgeoisie (accomplished, often upper-middle class).
The portmanteau is a neologism relying on two processes, the apocope and the apheresis - put simply, the deletion of the end or beginning of a word. The resulting terms that make up a portmanteau can be identified through their recognizable original etymology. Are you able to identify the words contained in the French portmanteau words célibattante, adulescent or alicament? Do you understand the new meaning that results from these combinations?
ALICE IN PORTMEANTEAULAND
This sort of lexical telescoping exists in all languages. Did you know that ‘brunch’ is a fusion of ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’? Or that the ‘smog’, a type of atmospheric pollutant, is made up of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’?
Though portmanteaus can seem very silly, their usage is very common in both English and French. For example, the French portmanteau bobo (yuppie), a popular term created with bourgeois and bohème, is widely employed in day-to-day conversation.
A TOOL OF ACADEMIA
Portmanteau words are not a recent invention. Francois Rabelais, a Renaissance writer, had already created a few during the 16th century, such as hypocritiquement (critical + hypocrital). In the next century, aristocrat Madame de Sévigné created bavardiner (to chat + dine), and Victor Hugo and Rimbaud invented foultitude (influence + multitude) and patrouillotisme (patrol + patriotism), respectively, in the Romantic era.
These linguistic hybrids have always had their place in literature and even philosophy. One of the key concepts of deconstruction, a theory designed by philosopher Jacques Derrida that examines the relationship between text and meaning, is centered around the term différance, which combines the terms (originally in French) ‘difference’ and ‘deferring.’ This is proof that even serious scholars harness the creative power of portmanteau words!
To learn more about the art of the portmanteau, check out these books:
>> "Ralentir, mots-valises !" Alain Finkielkraut, Seuil
>> "Devinaigrette. Méli-mélo de mots-valises", Alain Créhange, Mille et une nuits