Vocab activities for your classroom

How Lewis Carroll Would Feel About Jeggings

Have you heard of jeggings? Well, if you haven't, surely your students have. Jeggings are skin-tight stretchy jeans, and their name was formed by fusing the words jeans and leggings. Jeggings and other popular words these days, like chillaxing and bromance, are all considered blends or portmanteau words — and worth exploring as a part of your students' word study.

You could introduce the idea of blends or portmanteau words to your students through contemporary examples from popular culture like jeggings, and then explore the origins of the word portmanteau — a portmanteau itself – as a blend between the French words porter ("to carry") and manteau ("cloak"). To some, a portmanteau is a suitcase that "carries your cloaks"; to Lewis Carroll, the word provided a way for Humpty Dumpty to explain some of the quirky word choice in the poem "Jabberwocky" to Alice in Through the Looking Glass:

"Let's hear it," said Humpty Dumpty. "I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven't been invented just yet."

This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."

"That's enough to begin with", Humpty Dumpty interrupted: "there are plenty of hard words there. 'Brillig' means four o'clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner."

"That'll do very well", said Alice: "and 'slithy'?"

"Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same as 'active'. You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word."

Perhaps your students will not have heard of slithy and might not be too impressed with the importance of Carroll's wordplay. But, if you entertain them with a dramatic reading of the poem (such as this one) and challenge them to find the two portmanteau words from "Jabberwocky" that can be found in a contemporary dictionary, you might pique their interest a bit more. (Answer: chortle (from chuckle + snort) and galumph (from gallop + triumph).

After exploring the nonsensical "Jabberwocky," have students investigate some of the more logical, commonplace blends they may have already encountered (some of which they probably never suspected were formed by combining separate words).

You can compare the students' task to a dissection, a word dissection. In biology, students are taught to dissect earthworms (and frogs if the school budget and animal rights activists allow) in order to see how their different organs function together. In word study, students should dissect blends to see how their different parts function together as well. Your students may already be accustomed to looking inside words and identifying their different parts, but they most likely think in terms of altering base words by adding prefixes and suffixes. Portmanteau words offer a new means of linguistic sleuthing — trying to identify the previously independent words that were joined together to form the blend.

Here's a short list to whet the students' appetite for word dissection. (Students can use the Visual Thesaurus to look up each of these words to help them in their research.) As a bonus, the first five students to send in the correct answers will win a free Visual Thesaurus T-shirt! Students can submit their answers by e-mailing them to wanted@visualthesaurus.com. (Along with the answers, please include name, mailing address, and preferred T-shirt size.)

Portmanteau Word + Word = portmanteau























After students have had a chance to investigate the distinct words that went into making some common blends, challenge them to come up with one or two of their own. Getting back to the title of this article, I think Lewis Carroll would be thrilled to learn that even the fashion industry has carried on his portmanteau legacy with the invention of jeggings. Now, you can do your part to share this form of word invention with your students. As Carroll says himself, to create a portmanteau is "that rarest of gifts."

For instance, take the two words "fuming" and "furious". Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards "fuming", you will say "fuming-furious"; if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards "furious", you will say "furious-fuming"; but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."

—Preface to "The Hunting Of The Snark"

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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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