Children’s author Lil Chase compiled a list of her favorite made-up words in the Guardian today. What’s interesting is how many of the words, invented fancifully by literary wordsmiths, have simply become normal English words. ‘Muggle,’ from J.K. Rowling, now is used not only to mean “a non-magical person,” but more widely as being a person outside of some specific interest. Lil Chase lists A.A. Milne’s “heffalump,” Orson Welles’ “ungood,” and others, and of course Carroll:
"Coloured Jabberwock" by InsidiousTweevle (digital art, photomanipulation, ©2007-2011) based on American McGee's Alice, deviantart.com
After slaying the terrible Jabberwock, the boy in Lewis Carrol’s poem “left it dead, and with its head / he went galumphing back.” It’s thought to be a combination of the words “gallop” and “triumphant”. However, modern-day usage is different: picture a sort of ungainly, graceless way of walking with difficulty, the gait of a grumpy teenager, perhaps; perhaps how you might walk if you were dragging a giant jabberwock’s head.
My favourite made up word comes from The Simpsons and it describes all of the words above. It’s “a dubious or made up word, term, or phrase that is entirely plausible because it makes logical sense within existing language conventions”. But it’s best defined by simply quoting the script:
As two teachers stand at the back of the auditorium someone recites Springfield’s motto: A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Teacher 1: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
Teacher 2: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
Cromulent is an amazing word. I can’t believe I didn’t know it before. It’s like the word ‘sesquipedalian,’ which is a long word which means “a long word.”
Linguist Robert Beard (the author of The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English, which I’ve heard is a bit prejudiced against the Anglo-Saxon) complains in CNN’s 2010 Year in Review that his sacred English Language took another “fresh beating” this year, discussing the prevalence of new portmanteau words.
New words and constructions like “Obamacare,” “WikiLeaks,” “lamestream,” “shovel-ready,” “sexting,” and many others like them were uttered or typed and in minutes spread across the globe.
Makes one wonder: Have we been beating English into a new shape, or just beating it up? There is, after all, a difference between the games we play with new words, which can be amusing — even though they often get out of hand — and the more subtle changes that often lead to confusion and offensiveness.
Beard then goes on to cite Carroll and relay the modern political history of portmanteau malapropisms:
Coined by Lewis Carroll, the term “portmanteau word” is one that carries two words inside itself. Portmanteaus may simply be funny games we play with words or errors that we should avoid.
When we speak, we go to our mental dictionaries for the right words. If we find two words with similar meanings or pronunciations, we have to make a split-second choice of which to use. President George W. Bush’s mind once found itself having to choose between “miscalculated” and “underestimated” as he spoke, but failed to reach a decision in time, so he uttered “misunderestimated”.
Sarah Palin’s famous portmanteau “refudiate” is similar. “Refudiate” is a speech error that many others before her have made by blending “refute” and “repudiate.” That it has been around for ages but has yet to make it into a dictionary tells us that it is a speech error we should stop discussing and let pass for what it is: a funny but erroneous portmanteau.
Portmanteaus may be “funny games” (I’ll take that as a compliment), and annoying ones can make it into mainstream parlance quickly thanks to new media, but there’s no need to be curmudgeonly about a year which saw many strange and entertaining new coinages. Palin’s defense of her accidental wordsmithing (which was later named 2010 Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary) was to tweet: “‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”
There’s a new book celebrating the art of combining two words into a new word: Portmanteau A-Z: An Alphabet of Portmanteau Words by Rebecca May (Merrell Publishers, $14.95.) It’s hardly encyclopedic, she only chooses 26 words. But Lewis Carroll is credited and discussed in the introduction, and Jabberwocky is quoted at the beginning. Among the words she chooses are galumph, uffish, mimsy, Frankenfood, Oxbridge, ruckus (a blend of “ruction” and “rumpus!” I never knew!) and stumblesharf.
If you haven’t heard the hype, Syfy is rolling out a hot new four-hour miniseries inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, this coming Sunday and Monday evenings starting at 9pm. (Syfy used to be called the Sci Fi Channel, and this rebranding is being boycotted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Slate as an “unsupportable offense against orthography.”) This show should should be a wild take on the Alice “myth”, with Carroll listed as only one of many influences including Doctor Who and other classic genre-benders. The adult Alice (Caterina Scorsone) can do karate. You may remember Harry Dean Stanton, who plays an insurgent Caterpillar “resisting” the Queen of Hearts, as a regular from David Lynch movies and the slithery Fundamentalist Mormon prophet in Big Love. And the Dodo, also an insurgent, is played by Tim Curry, who was of course once the sweet transvestite transsexual from Transylvania. The Syfy plot sounds too complicated to recap before seeing it, involving some sort of coveted ring of power, the Gem of Wonderland, but the production and acting all sound first rate. There’s trailers and other promo material at www.syfy.com/alice, and Troy Patterson’s review at Slate (which I was just paraphrasing) is here. Patterson coined a delicious Carrollian portmanteau “maluscious” (luscious and malicious) to describe Kathy Bates’ Queen of Hearts.
Lewis Carroll was not mentioned by name, nor was the word ‘portmanteau’ ever dropped, but Humpty Dumpty’s spirit lurked around the September 13th, 2009, episode of This American Life (#389 Frenemies). Starting at 29:45 in the episode, Ira Glass interviews lexicographer Erin McKean, whom he had asked to research the word ‘frenemy’. She found the first attempted coinage by gossip columnist Walter Winchell in 1953, who wrote “how’s about calling the Russians our ‘frenemies’?”, although the word didn’t really take off till decades later.
Their conversation, transcribed, starting at 32:00 in the episode:
Glass: Wait, are there other words like this, where they sound alike, and then they get smashed together into one word?
McKean: Oh, it happens, like, all the time. I mean, think, there’s, like ‘guesstimate’, right? And that’s from 1936.
Glass: Do you have another one?
McKean: I love this one, and people say this one all the time with a little thrill of thinking they’re the first person ever to say it: You know, that someone is entering their ‘anecdotage.’
Glass: I’ve never heard that. So you get old, and then you start telling your anecdotes, and that’s it?
McKean: Right, and I think the central part, is that you start telling the same anecdotes over and over again.
Glass: Right. You got another one?
McKean: Lots of people think that they are the first person to create the word ‘linner’.
McKean: Linner is that meal you must have between lunch and dinner.
Glass: That just makes me feel mad at somebody, hearing that…
(They go on to discuss the word ‘slanguage’ and lexical gaps.) The lexicographer and the radio host condescend a bit to these enthusiastic amateur wordsmiths, but they’re far from being the first people to think they’ve coined a clever portmanteau. Mark Burstein quotes from James Atherton’s The Books at the Wake, when he discusses the creation and later development of word-smashing techniques from Carroll to Finnegans Wake:
It must have astonished [James] Joyce, that avant-garde innovator, proud of his Irish nationality, contemptuous of the Church of England, and confident of his own originality, to find that he had been forestalled in so many of his discoveries by a mid-Victorian Englishman in minor Anglican orders.
Of course, Humpty Dumpty doesn’t claim to have invented the practice, nor any of the portmanteaus of which he is the master. And back to Ira Glass, it’s a shame they didn’t get into the history of “smashing together” words, but it’s interesting to learn that part of a lexicographer’s job is to let people down when they learn they didn’t invent words like ‘anecdotage’.