Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Would You Prefer a "Cronut" or a "Dossant"?

In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I look at the recent craze for "cronuts," which are a croissant-doughnut hybrid created by an upscale French bakery in Manhattan. It was such a hit that imitators have created their own hybrids using names like dossant or doissant. Regardless of these concoctions' culinary qualities, is cronut a more appealing name than other combinations of croissant and do(ugh)nut?

When it comes to words that combine parts of other words, called blends or portmanteau words, it's hard to come up with a magic formula that makes certain mixtures more successful than others. But one key factor is that the original words that contribute to the blending should be recognizable. Thus we often see an entire word grafted onto a part of another word, as in cheeseburger (cheese + hamburger) or cranapple (cranberry + apple). In such cases, only one partial word must be identified with an expanded form. With the -burger of hamburger, the word part took on a life of its own as a standalone word, helped along by a reanalysis of hamburg + -er (referring to the German city of Hamburg) as ham + burger (as if the word were a noun-noun compound, a burger of ham).

In the case of cranapple and the various other cran-juices originally created by Ocean Spray, cran- never achieved such standalone status. As Nancy Friedman explained in a 2009 Candlepower column, the various cran-blends were the brainchild of Edward Gelsthorpe, who would later go on to create another blended brand name: Manwich canned meat sauce for sandwiches. Manwich uses the -wich of sandwich and combines it with man for a different style of blend — Sloppy Joes made from the mix were pitched as "manly" sandwiches (long before such masculine blends as manscaping and mancation).

Productive word-parts such as cran- and -wich have been dubbed "libfixes" by the linguist Arnold Zwicky. Other non-gastronomical examples include  -gate (from Watergate, now a suffix for any scandal), -nomics (from economics, not to be confused with -omics from genomics), -cast (from broadcast, discussed by Neal Whitman in his column on kudocast), and -zilla (from Godzilla, which I covered in a discussion of bridezillas). Only occasionally do such libfixes become full-fledged words like burger. More often they continue to attach to independent words to create recognizable blends, like -mageddon and -pocalypse latching on to snow to make snowmageddon and snowpocalypse.

Structurally speaking, cronut and do(i)ssant as alternate blends of croissant and donut work a bit differently, in that the word-parts that constitute them will likely never become productive libfixes. Instead, we're simply expected to recognize the component parts and understand the names as labeling novel combinations. These blends are more like brunch (from breakfast + lunch), smog (smoke + fog), and spork (spoon + fork). This type of blending tends to be less successful, simply because it requires more background knowledge to recognize the preexisting elements that are packed into the new words portmanteau-style.

For such words to take off and find their way into the lexicon usually requires some sort of flurry of publicity in order to fix them in the common consciousness. Cronut has benefited from just this sort of publicity, at least among the culinary cognoscenti. Also-rans like doissant may seem like knock-offs, but they could have a longer life for one simple reason: cronut has been trademarked and can only be used legally by one bakery, and the creator has no interest in mass-marketing them. Do(i)ssant therefore could become genericized, a process that is better for such a word's long-term success (despite the protestations of trademark lawyers). So the fortunes of these food names could really come down to a matter of economics — or make that cronutnomics.

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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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