Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mixing and Mashing Words (With a Little Moshing)

A blog commenter recently described the linguistic situation in her household as "a mixmash of English and German." As she later explained, the word mixmash was invented by her daughters to describe their experiences growing up bilingual. Now, mixmash is not a word you'll find in any dictionary, but it's easy enough to appreciate it as a mash-up of mix and (mish)mash. It's a wonderful example of how speakers of English are constantly mixing and mashing the lexicon, and yet somehow we manage to understand each other just fine.

The word mishmash is what's known as a "vowel-shift reduplication," where two syllables differ only by a vowel variation. As Orin Hargraves described in the Language Lounge, mishmash is one of the older reduplicated words in English: along with crisscross, pitter-patter, and riffraff, it dates back to the 15th century. The meaning, "a motley assortment of things," has stayed roughly the same over all these years. And other Germanic languages have taken a similar reduplicated route: German and Swedish have mischmasch, Dutch has mismas, and Danish has miskmask. Speakers of all of these languages seem to have decided that this is the sound of a muddled melange.

As with many other reduplicated words, mishmash consists of one part that can stand on its own — mash (a noun or verb for mixing stuff together, often violently) — and one part that's nonsensical without its partner in reduplication — mish. The beauty of mixmash is that it takes the semantically empty syllable mish and infuses it with something more meaningful, mix.

Some linguists (including yours truly) have recently begun to call such creative transformations eggcorns. You can read the VT's interview with Geoffrey Pullum for a full description of how the term eggcorn came about, but basically it's a reanalysis of a word or phrase to make its meaning somehow more transparent. Some take the word acorn and make it eggcorn (since, after all, it's shaped like an egg), while others take mishmash and make it mixmash.

There is, in fact, an entire Eggcorn Database devoted to cataloging such curiosities, and after reading about mixmash I felt obliged to add an entry for it. There you can see that many people have come up with the word mixmash in the past, such as the photographer Ansel Adams, who wrote in a 1962 letter about an exhibit that he thought was "a distressing mixmash."

These days, mix and mash easily go hand in hand, with both words used to describe how snippets of music are blended together with modern production methods. Hiphop music has long had its mix-masters and mix-tapes, and since the '90s the word mash-up has come to mean a song that merges elements from two or more other tunes (like a vocal track and an instrumental track) through computer trickery. The fusion of mixmash is right at home in this mixed-up environment.

Another interesting version of the word is mixmosh. Mishmash has long had mishmosh as a variant, with the second vowel sounding more like that of German Mischmasch or the corresponding Yiddish word. So mixmosh works as a blend of mix and German- or Yiddish-influenced mishmosh. But like mixmash it also has developed new connotations in the modern musical era. Mosh, as any devotee of the mosh pit can tell you, now usually relates to the not-so-gentle art of slam-dancing. So mixmosh carries with it a suggestion of ebullient concert-goers smashing into each other with gusto.

We're actually mixmashing (or mixmoshing) the English language all the time. Leave your favorite verbal mash-ups in the comments below.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Bonbon Mots
We savor the pleasures of reduplication in the Language Lounge.
What's the difference between eggcorns and mondegreens? Geoffrey Pullum has the answer.
"Skadoosh" is the latest in a line of skittish-sounding English coinages.