One noticeable difference between native and non-native speakers in any language is that native speakers feel comfortable making up their own words. Two of the most common ways we do this is by making compound words and portmanteaus.
Compound words are single words that come from two smaller words combined. For example, after means ‘later in time,’ and noon means ’12 o’clock.’ Put them together and we get afternoon, which means ‘the time after 12 o’clock.’ Notice that neither word is shortened when we make a compound word. If we shorten one or more words before combining them, the result is called a portmanteau, e.g. breakfast + lunch = brunch.
Can you tell which of the following words are compound words, and which are portmanteaus? The answers are at the bottom of the page.
German is notorious for its lengthy compound words, e.g. rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, which means ‘insurance companies providing legal protection,’ whereas portmanteaus are more common in North American English and Korean. The latter has some of my favourite examples, with 불금 (‘Fire Friday’ – i.e. ‘Time to go wild’) and 개저씨 (‘Dog old man’ – i.e. ‘Old man who behaves badly’) two recent additions to the South Korean lexicon.
Portmanteaus have become increasingly common in the media in recent years, with social media helping to increase their popularity. Sources as well-regarded as Forbes use words like staycation (stay + vacation – ‘staying at home on vacation), and the term bromance (brotherly + romance – ‘an extremely close but nonsexual relationship between men’) even spawned its own song. Most portmanteaus I hear are quickly forgotten about, but a few get the distinction of entering the dictionary. The only portmanteau I know that comes from three words is turducken – turkey, duck, and chicken all cooked as one. Only in America…
So next time you encounter a new product or idea and there isn’t an agreed upon term to describe it, feel free to make up your own word. Maybe it’ll catch on like football and dashcam, or maybe it won’t, but at the very least, most people will find it cute when you try.
Here are the answers to the above quiz:
- eyeball – compound word – eye + ball
- liger – portmanteau – lion + tiger
- neither – portmanteau – not + either
- botox – portmanteau – botulinum + toxin
- handcuff – compound word – hand + cuff
- vitamin – portmanteau – vital + mineral
- multiplex – portmanteau – multiple + complex
- basketball – compound word – basket + ball
- newspaper – compound word – news + paper
- blog – portmanteau – web + log