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.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 27th 2009, 7:16 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Just a note of curiosity: the Moroccan Arabic word for apricots is “mishmash” – with no relation, I think, to the English word: Moroccan has many such reduplications. Apricot jam is ubiquitous on Moroccan breakfast tables and often goes by the name of “confiture de mishmash” – a mishmash of Moroccan dialect and French.
Tuesday January 27th 2009, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
During a tour in Denmark, the tour guide began describing the history and details around the Copenhagen Stock Exchange building ( http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/image90497-e2bn.html).

When describing the four dragon tails that conspired to form the spire, the guide used the word "intertwingled" to describe their configuration of the tails (i.e., "as you can see, the dragon tails are intertwingled to form the spire."). This is presumably a mixmash of intertwined and intermingled.

It was such a great mixmash that my friends and I have incorporated this term when needing to describe any situation along the same lines.

The great thing about a great mixmash like intertwingled (and, recursively, like the term mixmash itself) is not only that the meaning is conveyed effectively, but there is a sort of a hyper-meaning conveyed by the mixmash itself. Intertwingled somehow conveys an idea that something is even more intertwined and intermingled than the root words alone would convey by themselves.

And, similar to mixmash, intertwingled also has a cuteness to it that makes it aurally entertaining as well.

Cool stuff.
Tuesday January 27th 2009, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Interesting article!

My favorite eggcorn is one created by an extraordinary human being, a former school music-teacher named Emil Geddes. He came up with the word "coopatition." He is writing an article in my magazine and have the paragraph:

"I created the word 'co-opatition,' which combines 'competition' with 'cooperation,' and denotes a splendid quality often present in groups of students putting on school music performances. Within the group there may be competition, but everyone is cooperating to achieve a common goal — so it's a coopatition, and I guess the musicians are co-opatating with each other."
Tuesday January 27th 2009, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Just one point of terminological clarification: not just any mixmash of words qualifies as an eggcorn. An eggcorn involves the transformation of a word (or part of a word) that's semantically "opaque" and making it make sense in a new way. So examples like intertwingling and co-opatition are lovely mixmashes (traditionally called "blends" or "portmanteau words"), but they're not technically eggcorns.

Conversely, not all eggcorns are mixmashes/blends/portmanteaux. Sometimes eggcorns are created simply by switching out a word for a differently spelled homophone -- think of reinterpreted idioms like free reign, slight of hand, or baited breath.
Tuesday January 27th 2009, 9:49 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Interestingly, my students use "mixmash" at school. I've long assumed it was a mishearing and subsequent repetition of said mishearing of "mishmash." How funny!
Wednesday July 18th 2012, 6:26 PM
Comment by: ellen B. (san Diego, CA)
How about that stuff that sticks to your shoes in a movie theater? I call it popplegunk!

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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.