As I toyed with whether to write about blogs, podcasts or netiquette this month I noted that each subject is a portmanteau: a compound word combining two or more words and their meanings. “Blog” is a portmanteau of “web” and “log”, “podcast” is a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast” and “netiquette” is a portmanteau of “network” (or “internet”) and “etiquette”. Even Shetlink is a portmanteau of “Shetland” and “hyperlink”.

The word portmanteau, originally meaning a travel bag that opens into two hinged compartments, popular in 19th century Europe, is itself a portmanteau of “porter” (to carry, of Latin origin) and “manteau” (a cover or coat, of Middle French). Portmanteau’s use as designation of a metaphorical linguistic instrument is generally attributed to Lewis Carroll in 1871’s Through the Looking-Glass. Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the derivation of the odd words in Jabberwocky: “‘Slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ . . . You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word”

Portmanteaux generate their meaning by connecting two or more separate but interlinked words into a new word that conveys the new concept. Many portmanteaux are conceptually unadorned and represent a semantic consensus; fog and smoke combining to make smog; breakfast and lunch for brunch; spoon and fork make spork; guesstimate; inbredneck, and so on.

Then there’s the rather lazy genus of portmanteaux whose family trait is to tag a suffix to other words. Follow any subject with “aholic” to signify addiction to the subject, or pursue a word with “gate” to imply a scandal.

However, many of the more interesting examples of portmanteaux amalgamate words, phrases and notions that are conceptually incongruent or disparate; badvantage (bad and advantage); playpenitentiary (playpen and penitentiary); fundertaker (I made that one up).

Technology is teeming with portmanteaux. Emiticons (graphical icons which express an emotion) WinTel (Windows software running on Intel processors) and the aforementioned blog, podcast and netiquette are but a handful of examples. Many of these words are neologistic in nature, entering an exclusive yet transient patois before falling from favour as the technology in question is succeeded, and before the word can gain legitimacy or its use recorded or recapitulated.

Languages evolve in concert with the societies which they serve; historically through shared cultural experiences. In today’s knowledge-rich Western world we are faced with a turbulent turnover of technology and “cyber culture” in many aspects of our lives, and language struggles to proceed in step with the seemingly exponential rapidity of innovation.

New linguistic abstractions materialise with every technological advance and portmanteaux serve a vital communal, cultural and linguistic function, where words are re-cycled, mixed and merged unreservedly to christen new thoughts, ideas and inventions with names derived from familiar vernacular.

In this sense technological portmanteaux might be considered a modus operandi by which people can lead a life satiated with some semblance of familiarity whilst adapting to the sometimes unwelcome cultural shifts that technological advances foist on us.

There is no question that we need new words at a rate never before witnessed, but how far can the English language be misshapen and meddled with before comprehensible meanings are being lost through profligate portmanteaux; where many new words are a merely ephemeral collections of morphemes in which each syllable is a contraction or abbreviation derived from a prematurely antiquated pre-internet form of English?

Article for Shetland Life magazine – March 2009