WORD COURT ARCHIVES

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January 12th, 2005

Your family words

by Barbara Wallraff


A few weeks ago I turned the tables on you. I asked you questions, including this one: “Are there any words you use with your family or friends that don’t appear in dictionaries?” The answers I got (thank you!) were all over the map. The majority of them, though, had something in common. In fact, all the homemade words in the next two paragraphs share a characteristic. See if you can figure out what it is. Here’s a hint: Humpty-Dumpty gave a name to such words in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass.” Really.


A few weeks ago I turned the tables on you. I asked you questions, including this one: “Are there any words you use with your family or friends that don’t appear in dictionaries?” The answers I got (thank you!) were all over the map. The majority of them, though, had something in common. In fact, all the homemade words in the next two paragraphs share a characteristic. See if you can figure out what it is. Here’s a hint: Humpty-Dumpty gave a name to such words in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass.” Really.

Gary Bailey, of Grosse Ile, Mich., wrote: “My son, an automotive engineer with BMW, has started using the word ‘gription.’ The family laughed initially, but now we find ourselves using the word in place of ‘traction’ or ‘gripping power’ or ‘friction,’ depending upon the situation.” And Michael Zelek, of Canton, Mich., wrote: “‘Rainbrella.’ My 9-year-old daughter Alexandra put ‘rain’ and ‘umbrella’ together when she was a tot. My 7-year-old, Eryn, and 2-year-old, Sophie, don’t even recognize the correct word, owing mainly to the influence of their big sister.”

Did you guess? Each of those coinages is a “portmanteau word” -- one created by blending two existing words. They got that name when Humpty-Dumpty explained the made-up word “slithy” to Alice like this: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’... You see it’s like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Of course, a modern-day Alice would need to have “portmanteau” itself explained: It’s an old-fashioned suitcase that opens into two compartments. If Lewis Carroll were writing now, surely he would give portmanteau words a different name -- but what would a good up-to-date name be? Suggestions are welcome.
Another theme apparent in the homemade words readers sent me was that many had to do with pets. Judy and Roland Kays, of Albany, N.Y., keep ferrets, and when a ferret is doing something cute -- or when a person does something ferretlike that’s cute -- they call it “schnooding.” When a ferret or person is naughty or bad-tempered, that’s “schniveling.” Duly noted! And Phyllis Sweers, of Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote: “We have a large, goofy German shepherd named Cyrus who is occasionally overtaken by madness and thinks he’s a lap dog. He slowly and methodically joins us on the couch, climbing over us, stepping on various limbs and organs and any books or magazines in his path. He plops down in the middle of his well-orchestrated chaos and groans happily. The verb we use to describe this mayhem is ‘stomple,’ a combination of ‘stomp’ and ‘trample.’”

Until further notice, this last coinage is to be known as a “petmanteau word.”




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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