What Is a Portmanteau Word?

A portmanteau word is a word made by blending the meanings and parts of the spellings of two or more other words. Note that the "borrowed" parts give the portmanteau word both its spelling and its meaning. For example:
  • Smog. "Smog" (from "smoke" and "fog") is a smokey fog.
  • Brunch. "Brunch" (from "breakfast" and "lunch") is a late, large breakfast, often comprising cooked breakfast ingredients.
  • Guesstimate. A "guesstimate" (from "guess" and "estimate") is an uneducated approximation.
Occasionally, a portmanteau word is formed from the parts of more than two words, but the overwhelming majority of portmanteau words are formed from two words.

Table of Contents

  • The Parts of a Portmanteau Word
  • Comparing Portmanteau Words with Similar Structures
  • Forming a Portmanteau Word
  • What Does "Portmanteau" Mean?
  • How to Use the Word "Portmanteau"
  • Why Portmanteau Words Are Important
  • Key Points
  • Test Time!
portmanteau words

The Parts of a Portmanteau Word

In linguistics, portmanteau words are called blends. Let's dissect some portmanteau words and label the different parts:
  • Blend: "smog"
  • Component Words: "smoke" and "fog"
  • Splinters: "sm" and "og"
  • Blend: "brunch"
  • Component Words: "breakfast" and "lunch"
  • Splinters: "b" and "runch"
  • Blend: "guesstimate"
  • Component Words: "guess" and "estimate"
  • Splinters: "guess" and "timate"
The terms "blend" and "splinters" were coined by Valerie Adams in her 1973 book "An Introduction to Modern English Word-Formation."

Comparing Portmanteau Words with Similar Structures

Contractions Are Not Portmanteau Words

A contraction is a type of abbreviation. Contractions are formed in two ways:

(1) By replacing missing letters with an apostrophe.

  • you're, it's, they're
(2) By compressing a word.
  • Mr., Prof., Rev.
With contractions, the component words retain their original meanings. An expanded contraction has the same meaning as the contracted version. With a portmanteau word, the component words lend their meanings to the blend to form an entirely new word. Read more about contractions.

Compound Nouns Are Not Portmanteau Words

Compound nouns can be open (two words), closed (one word), or hyphenated. Here is an example of each:
  • swimming pool, shotgun, baby-sitter
Do not confuse portmanteau words with closed compound nouns. Even though a new word is formed from the component words, with a closed compound noun, the component words are retained in full. Read more about compound nouns.

Syllabic Abbreviation Are Not Portmanteau Words

A syllabic abbreviation is an abbreviation formed from the initial syllables of multiple words. For example:
  • Interpol (International Police)
  • INMARSAT (International Maritime Satellite)
  • Gestapo (Geheime Staats Polizei)
  • Comintern (Communist International)
  • romcom (romantic comedy)
These look a lot like portmanteau words, but they are not. The component words in an syllabic abbreviation retain their full meanings and always form an established term. The meanings of the component words are not blended to form a new idea. Look at this example of a portmanteau word:
  • telex
In "telex," the component words are "teleprinter" and "exchange." However, "telex" means "message." It does not mean "teleprinter exchange." If it did, "telex" would be a syllabic abbreviation not a portmanteau.

Forming a Portmanteau Word

Here are some ways of forming portmanteau words:
word start
word end
  • brunch from "breakfast" and "lunch"
  • liger from "lion" (the male) and "tiger" (the female)
  • tigon from "tiger" (the male) and "lion" the female)
  • Oxbridge from the universities of "Oxford" and "Cambridge"
  • spork from "spoon" and "fork"
word start
word start
  • telex from "teleprinter" and "exchange"
  • Microsoft from "microcomputer" and "software"
  • Velcro from the French words "velours" (velvet) and "crochet" (hook)
  • Tanzania from "Tanganyika" and "Zanzibar"
whole word
word end
  • chillax from "chill" and "relax"
  • wargasm from "war" and "orgasm"
  • dumbfound from "dumb" and "confound"
  • fanzine from "fan" and "magazine"
word start
whole word
  • Eurasia from "Europe" and "Asia"
  • frenemy from "friend and "enemy"
  • Brexit from "Britain" and "exit"
word end
word end
  • kittylicious from "Hello Kitty" and "delicious"
  • (This method is rare. Thanks for Wikipedia for this example.)
word A start
whole word B
word A end
  • adorkable from "adorable" and "dork"

What Does "Portmanteau" Mean?

A "portmanteau" is a large suitcase that opens into two equal parts. It is hinged in the middle at the back and is typically made of stiff leather. A portmanteau is suitable for carrying on horseback because of the way it opens (i.e., one half either side of the horse). The word "portmanteau" comes from the the French "porter" (to carry) and "manteau" (cloak).

Just as a portmanteau suitcase carries both compartments as one, so a portmanteau word carries both meanings as one.

How to Use the Word "Portmanteau"

A blended word can be described as "a portmanteau" or "a portmanteau word." More specifically, the word "portmanteau" is a noun, but it can be used as an attributive noun (i.e., like an adjective).

The plural of "portmanteau" in French is "portmanteaux" but if you're talking about two or more portmanteau words, use "portmanteaus" (i.e., the standard English plural).

Why Portmanteau Words Are Important

Portmanteau words are useful for capturing new concepts (e.g., current trends, technologies, and societal changes) efficiently and memorably. Why not invent a new portmanteau word to showcase your creativity?

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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