Packed Words

My daughter Malkie’s first word was “wanmore.”

Don’t bother looking it up. Google suggested restaurants named “Wan More” and a financial firm in Dakar, Senegal. I wasn’t going there.

No dictionary I checked (and I check a lot of dictionaries) lists ­wanmore.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in a gesture of British ­civility, offered the following suggestions: “No dictionary entries found for ‘wanmore.’ Did you mean:

  • any more
  • bandore
  • mandore
  • wanhope
  • windore.”

OED then asked if I want to widen my search and advised: “Find ‘wanmore’ in: » Phrases (0)» Definitions (0)» Etymologies (0)» Quotations (0)» Full Text (0).”

I chose none of the above.

By now, you figured out that Malkie actually meant to say “want more.” This should not be taken as an early sign of acquisitiveness, Heaven forbid. She was merely hungry and wanted more of whatever it was she was eating.

It’s easy to dismiss Malkie’s formulation as a toddler’s slurring of two words. But I beg to differ. It harks back to a time-honored linguistic coinage called a portmanteau.

Oxford Dictionaries Blog explained:

“A portmanteau, in the linguistic sense, is a word formed by blending elements from two or more distinct words to create one word with a new, combined meaning. This very process gave rise to its more familiar name — a blend. … Luggage enthusiasts can tell you that a portmanteau is also a suitcase with a special compartment for hanging clothing and a regular compartment for folded clothes and other articles. It derives from the Latin portare — to carry and mantellum — a cloak.”

Then Oxford filled us in on the background: “Less commonly known is the fact that, according to the OED, only one of these meanings existed before 1871. Even less commonly known (and somewhat surprising) is that the evolution of the word portmanteau to include both ‘suitcase’ and ‘linguistic blend’ was first introduced in a children’s book by an anthropomorphized, oddly profound, talking egg.”

That egg was Humpty Dumpty, who, in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, gave Alice a lecture on the nonsense poem ­“Jabberwocky.” Defining the word “slithy,” he said, “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Sadly, Humpty Dumpty cracked up. But the portmanteau lives on.

Oxford Dictionaries compiled a list of portmanteau words that have become well established. These include brunch (breakfast + lunch), guesstimate (guess + estimate), motel (motor + hotel), and shopaholic (shopper + alcoholic). More recent portmanteaus include smog (smoke + fog), affluenza (affluence + influenza), and webinar (web + seminar).

Writing in The New York Times, Bryan Garner — dean of usage experts — called webinar a handy blend. But he called blog (web + log) “perhaps the ugliest neologism of the last century.”

Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College, is executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. The society is credited for originating the word-of-the-year ritual now observed by every ­dictionary and word aficionado. Metcalf conducts the annual election of word-of-the-year.

In Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, Metcalf analyzed some of what goes into the success or failure of a new word. He developed what he calls the “FUDGE Factor.” As he described it in an interview with Visual Thesaurus, he called it FUDGE “because I’m sort of fudging a little. The first one, ‘F,’ is for ‘frequency.’ How often is it used? Then there’s ‘U’ for ‘unobtrusiveness,’ … a word shouldn’t stick out, shouldn’t appear to be new. ‘D’ is for diversity of users and meanings. If a word is used exclusively by just a single group, like say, nuclear scientists and nobody else, it’s not going to enter the general vocabulary even if the scientists themselves use it a lot. ‘G’ is generating new forms and meanings. And ‘E,’ finally, is simply the endurance of the concept.”

A popular new word that was a flash in the pan (or the sky) was ­Sputnik, the Russian satellite that orbited the earth in 1957. Sputnik is now in the space junkyard. But its second-stage rocket suffix endures in words like beatnik, kibbutznik, nudnik and refusenik.

Perhaps my favorite word blend — a three-section portmanteau — is a family heirloom. It was coined by my grandson, Malkie’s son Moshe Pinchas. (Does neologism run in families?)

When Moshe Pinchas was 2, I saw him following my son Meir, who — unaware of his follower — headed toward the stairs … and out the door.

For a moment, Moshe Pinchas just crouched at the top of the stairs. He looked forlorn, about to cry … staring into the stairwell where Meir had just disappeared. Then, still crouching, he yelled at the top of his little loud lungs:

“Unca Meir … Weeyayu?!”


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