What is a Portmanteau Word?

Motel Sign, Saskatchewan
An example of a portmanteau word: motel = motor + hotel. Benjamin Rondel / Getty Images

A portmanteau word is a  word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two or more other words. More formally known as a blend.

The term portmanteau word was coined by English writer Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Later, in the preface to his nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Carroll offered this explanation of "Humpty-Dumpty's theory of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau":

[T]ake the two words "fuming" and "furious." Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards "fuming," you will say "fuming-furious"; if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards "furious," you will say "furious-fuming"; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • Brangelina (Brad Pitt + Angelina Jolie)
  • bromance (brother + romance)
  • Cronut™ (croissant + doughnut)
  • dramedy (drama + comedy)
  • Frankenfood (Frankenstein + food)
  • infomercial (information + commercial)
  • motel (motor + hotel)
  • netiquette (net + etiquette)
  • Oxbridge (Oxford + Cambridge)
  • pixel (pic + element)
  • quasar (quasi-stellar + star)
  • sexpert (sex + expert)
  • sexting (sex + texting)
  • smog (smoke + fog)
  • splatter (splash + spatter)
  • statusphere (status + atmosphere)
  • Tanzania (Tanganyika + Zanzibar)
  • telethon (television + marathon)
  • Viagravation (Viagra + aggravation)
  • "A word formed by fusing elements of two other words, such as Lewis Carroll's slithy from slimy and lithe. He called such forms portmanteau words, because they were like a two-part portmanteau bag. Blending is related to abbreviation, derivation, and compounding, but distinct from them all."
    (Tom McArthur, "Blend." The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)

The Sound Bites of Modern English

  • "[D]ancercise, simulcast, Frappuccino--they wear their meanings on their shortened sleeves. Portmanteau words are the sound bites of modern English, calculated to catch on the first time people hear them."
    (Geoffrey Nunberg, The Way We Talk Now. Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
  • "Smirting happens when two people, smoking outside, fall to flirting, and discover that they have more in common than simply nicotine. In Ireland, where the term originated after the ban in 2004, there is even evidence of non-smokers joining the smoky throng outside because the atmosphere there is more flirtatious.

    "Smirting is a portmanteau word, formed by packing parts of two words together to create another, combining the sense of each."
    (Ben Macintyre, "Ben Macintyre Celebrates the Portmanteau." The Times, May 2, 2008)

    Portmanteau Survivors: Dumbfound, Flabbergasted, Gerrymander

    • "Portmanteau words are frequently more whimsical than useful and don't survive, but many exist . . .. Dumbfound, from dumb and confound, was put together in the 17th century. Flabbergasted, one of the more contrived, is apparently an 18th-century blend of flabby and aghast. Gerrymander combines the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry and salamander, referring to the shape of a redistricted Massachusetts county. Anecdotage, adding the implication of dotage to anecdote, and Clifton Fadiman's hullabalunacy from hullabaloo and lunacy, are clever enough to deserve survival."
      (Robert Gorrell, Watch Your Language!: Mother Tongue and Her Wayward Children. University of Nevada Press, 1994)

    Portmanteau Games

    • "Two games can be played with portmanteau words. In the first game, one player thinks of a portmanteau word and asks the next player to say which words are blended to create it. In the second game, players try to make up new, humorous portmanteau words and give their definitions. Thus you might blend the words hen and endurance to make hendurance, meaning 'the patience of a hen trying to hatch out an egg.' Or you could blend the name of the dog Rin-tin-tin (who starred in films) and the word tintinnabulation to get Rin-tin-tintinnabulation: a very loud ringing of bells."
      (Tony Augarde, The Oxford A to Z of Word Games. Oxford University Press,1994)

      The Lighter Side of Portmanteau Words

      • "So a blog is a web log? Is there an apostrophe, or do you guys not even have the strength for that? You’re just going to jam two words together?"
        (Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, Feb. 2006)
      • "In her first tweet, [Sarah] Palin didn't write speak out; she used another term--refudiate. A few minutes later, the Tweet was rewritten with refudiate--which is not actually a word--removed, replaced by refute. . . .

        "The word caught someone's attention, because a few hours later Palin refused to refute refudiate, she tweeted that she's just following in Shakespeare's footsteps.

        "'Refudiate, misunderestimate, wee-wee'd up. English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!'"
        (Carolyn Kellogg, "Wherefore Art Thou, Refudiate? Sarah Palin as Shakespeare." Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2010)

      Pronunciation: port-MAN-tow

      Also Known As: blend