Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Blending In With the Natives

With the Halloween season now safely behind us for another year, I can bring to light a feature of it that has haunted me in recent weeks. In early October I walked into my local Target store (and I love Target, by the way) to be greeted by this sign:

It was all I could to stop myself from crying out: "Find the person who did this!" so that I might rap him or her over the knuckles while saying "Bad! Mustn't do!" But I desisted, and in the meantime I have given some thought to why I find the blend Booporium so completely odious, inappropriate for the occasion, and contrary to the felicities of productive English morphology.

Booporium is an unfortunate blend of the interjection "Boo!" and emporium. I say unfortunate because blends are a productive, useful, and frequent feature in the lexicon of English that enrich the language in many ways. Fellow VT contributor Nancy Friedman wrote about blending as a naming strategy for products in a great post last year. Her survey of them, in characteristic fashion, is thorough and authoritative; there is nothing about their formation for me to mansplain (yes, that's a blend too), so just by way of review: successful blends in English date back centuries, and also appear almost daily as new coinages. None of us goes a day without hearing, speaking, reading, and writing blends—or portmanteau words as they are sometimes called; that's Lewis Carroll's delightful term for them.

Many blends are real paragons of good representation: both the word and the thing it stands for are a literal blending. Examples include smog [sm(oke) + (f)og], gasohol [gas(oline) + (alc)ohol], and Spanglish [Span(ish) + (En)glish]. Other blends take the essential properties of one thing and add a dimension of meaning to it by blending in part of another word, such as gaydar [gay + (ra)dar], palimony [pal + (al)imony], and mockumentary [mock + (doc)umentary]. These blends are also well formed and have the feature of preserving the sound of the main underlying word: gaydar is a thing like radar; palimony is a kind of alimony.

There is often an element of playfulness in blends, especially those invented for particular occasions, and your appreciation of the fun of them probably depends to some degree on your penchant for puns, and perhaps tolerance for tiresome repetition: there is a tendency for some blends to pass from coinage almost immediately to cliché, owing to their corniness and too frequent use. We are, of course, each year offered opportunities for "spooktacular savings!" in the runup to Halloween, and soon after we can expect a few events in the winter to be characterized as "Snowmageddon." No weekend passes without mention in the sports pages of some team or athlete achieving a "threepeat".

The common phrase “proprietary blend” applies to a lot of things besides exfoliating creams and pumpkin spice mixes. A very common kind of proprietary blend is the portmanteau that is also a trademark. You can almost imagine a febrile copywriter, coining some clever combination of two words that sum up the wonders of a new product, and then checking immediately in a trademark register to see if someone else got there first. A 1993 book entitled Portmanteau Dictionary: Blend Words in the English Language, Including Trademarks and Brand Names (author: Dick Thurner) identifies more than 600 blends that are trademarks, and many more have come into circulation since then. Many such trademarked blends are as ephemeral as the products that they designated. Do you have a Breathingirdle® in your lingerie drawer? Have you served anyone Tofoodles® (that's tofu + noodles) lately?

  • My guess is that the originator of Booporium did not experience bitter disappointment on checking the trademark register, and Target is surely welcome to dibs this dysphonic mashup and use it ever hereafter, perhaps even saving their sign for use again next year. But I hope they will not. What exactly is it about Booporium that doesn't work? Here's what I think:
  • The best blends preserve as much as possible of the sound and sound pattern of the underlying words. Another recent emporium blend, Vaporium (place where you go to vape), does this much better because &"p" appears in both original words, and vapor is also a word unto itself.
  • If one of the base words is longer than the other, its sound pattern should govern the sound pattern of the blend. This typically results in euphonious and enduring blends that rhyme with one of their underlying words, like palimony and mockumentary do. Booporium fails here because the initial syllable boo does not lend itself to being unstressed.
  • The underlying words of blends are overwhelmingly drawn from three main parts of speech: noun, adjective, and verb. When you venture outside these (as booporium does, using an interjection) you are in a morphological no-man's land where success is far less likely.

A good blend is one that speakers will recognize and appreciate upon hearing it, because its constituents and the way they work together will be immediately obvious. This is not true upon hearing, much less upon seeing booporium. Our Germanic Sprachgefühl compels us to want to break the word after a consonant because our native words are much more likely to end in a consonant than in a vowel. So when we hear or see booporium we may think it has something to do with boops.

If there were such a thing as a booporium where you could go to give or get boops, it would be lovely, but I don’t think such a place exists yet.

When such booporia do come into being, I will be an early and regular visitor. But for the annual superstore department or pop-up storefront that specializes in Halloween costumes, decor, and candy, I hope that creatives at Target will work a little harder next year. There are many possibilities. Frightmart. Scare City. Halloween Hangout. Monster Mansion. Perhaps even ... Boodega?

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 1st 2017, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
First time I've experienced this reaction to an article here: I couldn't disagree more with the author on every single objection he raises to "booporium."
Wednesday November 1st 2017, 12:24 PM
Comment by: (Liberty Hill, TX)
I agree with Orin.
Wednesday November 1st 2017, 12:45 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)

You nailed it once again. My first reaction to the sign was boop also. It took me a moment redirect my thoughts after taking in the context. Similar to my reading other languages when abroad.

Wednesday November 1st 2017, 12:49 PM
Comment by: Sandra B. (Tarzana, CA)
I agree with Orin and in the same vein - suggest "Halloweenium"
Wednesday November 1st 2017, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Terri
Great article! Loved learning of the word, portmanteau.
I am a graphic designer and have had to endure many horrid examples of this blending. A recent example, Elaventrurous Escapes is an annual fundraiser for a local charity. Elegant Escapes would have been a perfectly fine name for the event, but someone on the committee felt the need to goof it up with the combination of elegant and adventurous. When I first saw it I thought of Elephant Adventures! Not only is it an unfortunate naming incident, the powers that be felt the need to give it a tagline, Where Elegance Meets Adventure. I tried to tell them that a tagline is to showcase benefits, but it only serves to mansplain the silly name.
Thursday November 2nd 2017, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Ovina F.
I wholeheartedly agree with the author. I despair at how blithely we mangle the language. A personal peeve of mine is "prequel" -- which springs from the same fount of ignorance as "booporium".
Thursday November 2nd 2017, 2:41 AM
Comment by: John F. (Horsens Denmark)
Would "Boo Emporium" do a better job? It's not too taxing to pronounce. The oo-sound elegantly glides into the em-sound instead of the abrupt shift from oo to p. Also, the message is clear.
Thursday November 2nd 2017, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for many comments. John F, I think you've hit the nail on the head: this is a case where a compound term, rather than a blend, would have done the job much better; and this aligns with points made by Terri and Ovina,that a blend is not always the answer to a lexical challenge. Sandra, I also like Halloweenium, especially the way it gives us a chance to say "weeni"; I hope someone will take it up. Finally, addressing Sue's point, blends and our responses to them are certainly a matter of personal taste.
Saturday November 4th 2017, 4:58 PM
Comment by: danie H.
"The best blends preserve as much as possible of the sound and sound pattern of the underlying words. "
"If one of the base words is longer than the other, its sound pattern should govern the sound pattern of the blend."

I am wondering if the same rules from above appiy to the delightful blending of couple's names, which is another genre of blending: Vaughniston, Kimye etc. (There are now several "Couple Name Generator" websites.)

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