Friday, July 27, 2007

Portmanteau Words

A portmanteau is a word created by combining two other words. They are sometimes officially recognized by dictionaries, but more often they are invented and popularized as slang. A common and relevant example is blog (web + log).

Lewis Caroll gets credit for the linguistic term portmanteau. In his Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is explaining to Alice the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky":
Well, slithy means lithe and slimy ... You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.

"Jabberwocky" gave us the now common word chortle, which is the blending of chuckle and snort.

Other common portmanteaux include:

smog (smoke + fog)
motel (motor + hotel)
brunch (breakfast + lunch)
alphabet (alpha + beta)
bioterrorism (biological + terrorism)
camcorder (camera + recorder)
electrocution (electric + execution)
spork (spoon + fork)
sportscast (sport + broadcast)
televangelist (television + evangelist)

But the most fun portmanteaux are those that won't likely ever make the dictionary. Words that are invented to meet a particular need at a particular time:

edutainment (education + entertainment)
slanguage (slang + language)
ginormous (gigantic + enormous)
mathlete (math + athlete)
dramedy (drama + comedy)
Chinglish (Chinese & English)
affluenza (affluent + influenza)

Here are a few I found online, including their definitions:

apocalapse: gap between predictions of the end of the world and when it might actually happen
skop: a movement between hopping and skipping
jerd: someone who is both a jock and a nerd
arrognance: the quality of being simultaneously ignorant and arrogant
mediocracy: a democracy where mediocrity abounds
arachnaclaustrophobia: fear of being in close spaces with spiders
momentaneous: happening momentarily and instantaneously
framily: a friend who is part of your family

And here's my current favorite:

precipilude: When you're driving in the rain and you go under an overpass--the moment where the rain isn't beating down on your windsheild; a precipitation interlude.

Got any more? I'd love some originals.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Additional Favorite Words

I just thought of it. I really like to say the word schism. And bungalow.

Least Favorite Words

My least favorite word is juror. I find it hard to say--like chewing a tough steak. A close second is disagreeable for the same reason: rural. A jury member from the country would be a rural juror. Say it three times--it sounds like a car engine that won't turn over.

Here's a tongue twister made up of words I hate to pronounce:

The royal rurual juror's jewelry drawer.

If I could I'd stick the word plural in there too.

I'd love to hear your least favorite words too.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Favorite Words

My kids love to ask dinner guests about their favorite things: books, movies, meals, colors, etc. People have favorite everythings: numbers, body parts, time of day. Lots of people have favorite words--words that, regardless of meaning, sound beautiful.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (one of my favorite books), Annie Dillard notes that her poet-friend, Rosanne Coggeshall, considers the word sycamore "the most intrinsically beautiful word in English." I find it a bit tough to rank them so objectively, but it is a nice-sounding word.

James Joyce's pick was cuspidor. It's too hard for me to remove the word from its definition to agree with Mr. Joyce. It's interesting that it rhymes with sycamore though. Just a little interesting, I guess.

If denotation could be completely discounted, my selection would be diarrhea. That word wins the prize for greatest aesthetic disparity between sound and sense. If you can block out any visual images and just listen, it's a lovely word.


Not bad. Anyone out there have a favorite you'd like to share?

Friday, July 20, 2007

More on "Moron"

Anonymous asks:

How long has "oxymoron" been a word? What, if anything, does it have to do with the name someone is given when displaying foolish behavior?

A good question with an interesting answer. I assume you are wondering about any relationship to the word moron. There is only a coincidental connection.

Oxymoron, according to Wikipedia, comes from Greek oxy, meaning sharp, and moros, meaning dull. So, literally, it means sharp-dull: Oxymoron is itself an oxymoron.

The word moron is pretty interesting too. We think of it as a crude, insulting term, but it was coined by psychologist Henry H. Goddard as a technical term for people with a mental age between 8 and 12 on the Binet scale, or for people with an IQ between 51-70. It is also derived from the Greek word meaning dull, for obvious reasons.

Interestingly, along with moron, imbecile and idiot were once professionally acceptable terms for the mentally handicapped. All have been demoted to detrimental slang.

And for the record, oxymoron is a really old word. It has existed in its English form since at least 1640, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is almost exactly the same word that was used in Classical Greece, which means it was coined no later than the 4th Century BC. Clearly it came well before Goddard coined moron early in the 20th Century.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More On Oxymorons

Is there anybody who doesn't love the word oxymoron? It's fun to say, and it's got enough syllables to make the user sound intelligent.

Oxymorons are great fun, too. They can be both profound and amusing at the same time (By the way, either oxymora or oxymorons can be used as the plural form). In his book Crazy English, Richard Lederer points out a number of common expressions that are oxymoronic (some of them only when you think twice).

old news, even odds, pretty ugly, small fortune, voice mail, loose tights, student teacher, original copy, freezer burn, divorce court, tight slacks, act naturally, recorded live, plastic silverware, Peacekeeper missile

I recently found a gazillion more of these on the web. These made me chuckle: barely dressed, work party, headbutt, Dodge Ram, personal computer, and Microsoft Works.

Dr. Mardy Grothe has published a book called Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. I highly recommend it for anyone with a penchant for clever aphorisms. Here are a few choice exerpts:

  • "Even his ignorance is encyclopedic." --Stanislaw Lec, of an unknown peer
  • "You'd be surprised to know how much it costs to look this cheap." --Dolly Parton
  • "He has been called a mediocre man; but this is unwarranted flattery. He was a politician of monumental littleness." --Theodore Roosevelt, of John Tyler
  • "A normal adolescent isn't a normal adolescent if he acts normal." --Judith Viorst
  • "A hero is a man who is afraid to run away." Proverb
  • "Humility is something I've always prided myself on." --Bernie Kosar, NFL Quarterback

I'll introduce more of these later--Oxymoronica lists thousands of oxymoronic quotations. Some are intentional and brilliant; others, my favorites, are accidental and hilarious.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Silent Letters?

I don't know if this idea bothers anybody else, but isn't silent letter an oxymoron? It seems to me a letter is a symbol used to represent a sound. I suppose some letters help us pronounce another letter--like the "e" helps us distinguish between hat and hate. Still, English seems to me to have an over-abundance of silent letters, most of which seem completely superfluous.

Every letter in the English alphabet is silent in at least one word. Check it out:


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Common Nonsense

Since Liz brought it up,
  • Why do you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?
  • Why do you slow down to go over a speed bump?
  • Why, when traffic moves so slowly, do they call it rush hour?
  • Why do you play at a recital and recite at a play?
  • Why do you have a hot water heater? (hot water doesn't need heating)
  • If the rooms are so close together, why do they call them apartments?
  • Why do cars carry shipments and ships carry cargo?

How about these...

  • Why do flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?
  • Why are famous and infamous not opposites?
  • Why is a caregiver and a caretaker the same thing?
  • Why do quite a lot and quite a few mean the same thing?
  • To lift up and to uplift mean the same, so why are set up and upset opposites?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Confusing Expressions

If I swerve in the nick of time to avoid an oncoming car, it's likely to be described as a near miss. I've often wondered why. It was an actual miss. I could understand a near collision, or a near disaster, or a near death experience, but a near miss would seem to mean I nearly missed, but didn't! Why do we commonly describe a near hit as a near miss?

And here's another one that strikes me as odd. Why do we describe someone flipping vertically as going head over heels? When I stand firmly upright, my head is normally over my heels. We use the expression head over heels when heels over head is clearly the image we are trying to convey. What's even odder to me is that hardly anyone ever questions this. If someone says, "he fell head over heels," our minds envision a man flipping heels over head.

One that baffled me as a child was "You can't have your cake and eat it too." If I have it, why the heck can't I eat it? It was satisfying to learn that the expression was originally, "You can't eat your cake and have it, too." That works better for me. I see the logic more clearly. Of course, it works either way as long as the and isn't assumed to indicate sequentiality. But it seems to me that sequence is easy to infer--as in a "hit and run" accident. You can't just switch those around without wrecking the point.

The cake expression apparently has been around since the 16th Century ( But the reverse-order version's been common for about 180 years. In researching the phrase, I learned that one clue to the identity of the Unabomber was his use of the original form of the expression ("You can't eat your cake and have it, too") in his manifesto. It narrowed the field of suspects to word nerds.(

The sequentiality thing causes confusion with expressions like back and forth and put on your shoes and socks. I find it easier to put on socks before shoes, and I've never gone back without first going forth.

Got any other common expressions that seem to defy common sense?