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?