September 2012 | Home
From the Amazon to Indonesia, 1870s explorer Joseph Beal Steere collected thousands of species to advance scientific research at U-M.
Adorkable. Is that really a word? What about ginormous? Linguists call them "blends" and they've been mixing it up for a while.
This month Victor Katch extols the virtues of downsizing—starting with the amount of food on our plates.
In politics, truth often is stranger than fiction. Electioneering makes for good Hollywood fodder as a result.
View some amazing footage of former head diving coach Dick Kimball, and learn his secret to staying young.
An online magazine for alumni and friends of U-M.
September 12, 2012
This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan's discussions of language.
Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass, coined the term "portmanteau word."
A portmanteau is a leather suitcase with two parts that can be folded together on a hinge to become one. A portmanteau word is created when we as speakers take two words, smush them together ("smush" being a technical term for the process!), and thereby make one new word.
In Carroll's Jabberwocky we find several portmanteau words, including slithy (from slimy and lithe) and chortle (from chuckle and snort). You'll notice that chortle caught on as a word and took on a life beyond the poem, while slithy never did (or at least hasn't yet).
Some portmanteau words are so well established that we may not even recognize them as blends. ("Blend" is the most common term in linguistics for a portmanteau word.) For example, a motel is a motor hotel. Smog is smoke and fog. Brunch combines breakfast and lunch into one meal.
Other blends prove very useful, such as televangelist (for a TV preacher) and guestimate (when you want to stress your estimate is based more on guesswork than actual knowledge).
I find the word emoticon to be quite useful. The word is a blend of emote or emotion plus icon, and it refers to those little smiley and winky faces (just to name two) we use in email, text, and other electronic channels. Given the speed of electronic communication and its lack of access to facial expressions, tone of voice, and the like, emoticons help us convey the spirit we hope to capture in our message (e.g., if the recipient could see us, they'd know we were smiling, joking, or flirting).
Students this past winter taught me the blend adorkable, which describes something that is dorky and adorable all at the same time. Now that I know this word, it is clear to me that I know many adorkable people who do many adorkable things.
Do you have a favorite "blend?"
There are other blends that probably won't make it. I think murse, for a male purse, is probably unlikely. That said, I didn't think chillax would survive (a blend of chill and relax) when students first told me about it several years ago, and now it appears to have some staying power. I still hear it—although some college students tell me it now feels very "high school" to them.
There are other new blends that seem to be fairly well established in the language. Bromance is one of them, a word that refers to a close male friendship.
And then there is ginormous, which fairly recently made it into standard dictionaries—and made headlines for doing so. The word clearly fills a gap for us as speakers to describe something that is not only giant or gigantic, and not only enormous, but truly ginormous. The Oxford English Dictionary shows us that this particular word isn't as new as we may think. The first citation is from a 1948 dictionary of military slang.
But as far as I can tell, the word adorkable is quite new, and I hope it stays.
is Professor of English Language and Literature and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. She also has faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.