CNN Linguist cringes at 2010’s portmanteaus

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!”