Ad and marketing creatives

When Words Collide

I learned a new word this summer: glotion. (Thank you, beauty-products retailer Sephora!) The word is meant to convey two concepts – glowing and lotion – in a single blended neologism. That is to say, it's a portmanteau word. And whether you like this one or not – I'm a skeptic myself – it's just one recent example of a strategy for word and name creation that goes back almost 150 years and includes many words so widely accepted in English that you may not suspect their Frankensteinish origins.

I'm not sure why Sephora chose a bald man to sell this stuff to women.

Lewis Carroll was the first writer to use portmanteau in a linguistic sense: In Through the Looking-Glass (1871) he had Humpty Dumpty explain to Alice that the unusual coined words in the poem "Jabberwocky" were "like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up in one word." A portmanteau was familiar to Carroll's readers as a suitcase that opened into two equal sections; the word comes from French porte-manteau ('carry cloak'). A portmanteau word – like Carroll's slithy (slimy and lithe), chortle (chuckle and snort), or galumph (gallop and triumphant) – combines two meanings into a seamless new whole.

Carroll's examples established some guidelines for portmanteau creation. A true portmanteau word is not a compound made up of two intact words, such as starfish or lifeguard or Minecraft. Portmanteaus aren't formed by tacking on a suffix, like the company name Shopify, or a prefix, like Recode. Nor are they initialisms like tronc, the new name of the Tribune Publishing Company in Chicago, formed from Tribune online content.

Rather, portmanteaus are a blend of word parts, often with an overlap in the middle, like Travelocity, which blends travel and velocity: a perfect little linguistic Venn diagram. As Kelila Kahane writes in the Oxford Dictionaries blog, portmanteaus "form in unpredictable, unpatterned ways that often have more to do with how they sound than what they mean. For example, while smog means 'fog which is intensified by smoke', infomercial certainly does not denote information intensified by a commercial."

The most successful portmanteaus flow readily off the tongue, overlap both semantically and phonetically, and fill a linguistic or cultural gap. Take brunch, which students at Oxford University invented in the 1890s to describe a combination of breakfast and lunch. ("An excellent portmanteau word," Punch magazine declared in its August 1, 1896, issue.) Almost completely forgotten is a related word coined by those same students: blunch, a meal eaten nearer to the lunch hour than brunch. It turned out that once you learned brunch, your appetite for new midday-meal words was sated.

Smog, coined in 1905, is another long-lived example: It's short, easy to pronounce, and handy for describing a modern atmospheric phenomenon. Affluenza – the name of a condition that supposedly afflicts wealthy people, robbing them of personal responsibility – is so appealing a word that it's been coined repeatedly (from affluence and influenza), in 1903, 1954, and 1979. Vitamin – originally spelled vitamine – was created in 1912 from vital and mineral when scientists needed a name for "certain preventive substances" that could fend off diseases like pellagra. Spam, which began life in 1937 as a trademark portmanteau of spiced and ham, was adopted by the computer community to describe a flood of messages. (The inspiration came from "Spam," a 1970 sketch by the Monty Python comedy troupe, in which "Spam" was repeated multiple times.) So successful was spam that it begat another portmanteau, spamdex, a blend of spam and index.

More recently, I've noticed several useful new portmanteaus. Trimmigrant, an overlapping of trim and immigrant, describes a person who travels to a cannabis-growing region to trim marijuana buds during the harvest season. A grammando, coined by writer Lizzie Skurnick in 2012 from grammar and commando, is a person who habitually corrects others’ grammar mistakes. And precariat, a blend of precarious and proletariat, succinctly defines "people whose lives are precarious because they have little or no job security"; it first appeared in the late 1980s.

(By the way, it's not only English-speakers who are smitten with portmanteaus. Pokémon, the wildly popular game, is a Japanese portmanteau of two English words: poketto [pocket] and monsutā [monster]. For other Japanese portmanteaus, see this recent Language Log post. And then check out these translations of the first four lines of "Jabberwocky," portmanteaus and all, into Italian, Russian, Danish, and other languages.)


Unfortunately, dud portmanteaus are at least as plentiful as successful ones: it's devilishly hard to create a word whose sound and meaning hit the bullseye. Case in point: femvertising, a recent coinage that's heavily promoted by an American company called SheKnows Media. (SheKnows gives Femvertising Awards for "excellence in pro-female advertising.") The trouble with femvertising is phonetic: Very few English words contain an /mv/ consonant blend, and those that do – circumvent, Humvee, triumvirate – place the stress on the second or final syllable, not the first, as femvertising does. That awkward stress pattern contradicts what we expect from an English word and makes a native speaker feel a little tongue-tied.

Here's another example: Straining to convey "belay" and "goggles" in a single word, Belāggles falls short of the summit. In English, a vowel that precedes a double consonant is always "short" – compare haggle, toggle, squiggle – and slapping a macron over the "a" can't force us to change our expectation and switch to the long vowel of "belay." (The macron doesn't even appear in product copy outside the company website.)

And sometimes, you have to wonder whether a company is just messing with us.

Sprint ad campaign, January 2014.

Friends plus family equals framily? Maybe for an amusing short-term promotion, but not in anyone's native vocabulary.

In at least one case I know of, though, a stunt portmanteau caught on – not just for a season, and not only in its place of origin, but enduringly and internationally.

In 2012, the Australian ad agency McCann Melbourne was hired to publicize a new edition of the Macquarie Dictionary. The agency invited lexicographers, authors, and other language mavens to a brainstorming session to invent a new word to describe the act of ignoring people in favor of one's smartphone. The result of that session was phubbing, a tongue-in-cheek blend of "phone" and "snubbing." A Stop Phubbing website was launched, media releases went out, and phubbing began popping up in news stories.

Sure, it was a silly-sounding word, with echoes of flub and fop. But there was a serious mission behind the mischief: "Language is always changing. Keep an up-to-date dictionary." And the joke turns out to be on the scoffers: Four years after its invention, phubbing has become so entrenched that it appears in the title of a scholarly paper, "How "phubbing" becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone," published this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

That's not just interesting or cool. It's downright fantabulous.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.