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The Language Perfectionist: The Perfect Blend

You hear and use them every day, perhaps without realizing why they’re special. I’m referring to what linguists call blends: new words created via the marriage of two other words.

Familiar words of this type include the computer term bit (binary + digit), brunch (breakfast + lunch), smog (smoke + fog), and Spam – the edible kind (spiced + ham).

They’ve also been called telescope words and centaur words. Lewis Carroll called them “portmanteau words.” That reference is now rather obscure, but back in the day, a portmanteau was a traveling bag that opened into two compartments. Thus, as Carroll defined the term in Through the Looking-Glass: “two meanings packed up into one word.” And, by the way, several of Carroll’s own blended-word coinages are still used, most notably chortle (chuckle + snort).

Decades ago, Time magazine and the gossip columnist Walter Winchell were known for devising new blends, some of which survived while others faded away. Among them: cinemactress, frauditor, genethics, guesstimate, and infanticipating.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll discover that the list of blend words is surprisingly long: advertorial, camcorder, Chunnel, glasphalt, infomercial, Jazzercise, minicam, pixel, and sitcom, for example. Because new things are constantly being created, and they all need names, the roster will surely continue to grow.

Here are a few more, the origins of which may not be immediately apparent:

  • guacamole: from the Aztec ahuacamolli – a conflation of ahucatl (avocado) + molli (sauce or paste).
  • happenstance: from happen + circumstance.
  • Tanzania: from the names of two countries, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, that merged in 1964.
  • Velcro: from the French velours (velvet) + croche (hooked). The ubiquitous fastener was invented in Switzerland.
[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]