Double Portmanteaus and Stacked Acronyms
Posted by Neal on December 7, 2004
Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions discusses the newly coined word vog, which refers to a kind of smog currently being pumped out by Mt. Saint Helens. Vog is an example of what’s sometimes called a portmanteau word, in which parts of two words, in this case volcano and smog, are blended to create a new one. But wait a minute! Busch quite reasonably objects. Smog itself is a portmanteau word, formed from smoke and fog. When you amputate the sm-, you’re not just shortening the word, you’re losing essential information about its meaning! Or, as he puts it,
[It] raises the question of how many times you can iterate this sort of process before the derivation becomes hopelessly opaque.
His friend Radagast, however, makes a good point in a comment:
[C]oining the … word vog allows residents/ volcanologists of the region to specifically describe a condition familiar to them in a single, short word that they can all understand.
And does it really matter if the derivation is “hopelessly opaque,” as long as people know what you mean when you say the word?
In other words, who ever said that the derivation of a word had to be transparent? That smog can be truncated this way and become part of a double portmanteau (as one commentator was inspired to call it) just goes to show that smog has been around long enough to be accepted as an ordinary word without any special status attached to its internal structure.
I guess Busch’s and my problem (if I may presume to read his mind) is that we can’t let go of the past. For us, sm- still stands for smoke, -og still stands for fog, and smog can only retain its meaning when both those elements are present. In other words, smog is more like a phrase than a word: Just as I like traffic cannot mean the same thing as I like traffic lights, so -og cannot mean the same thing as smog.
This is reminding me of something. Oh, yes! Those stacked acronyms I talked about a while back, the main example being ACT-UP, where the A stands for AIDS. Here’s a more recently collected example:
LIGO = Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory
But laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, so what does the L in LIGO really stand for? (And incidentally, why does wave get left out in the cold?) Another example:
DELPH-IN = Deep Linguistic Processing with HPSG Initiative
But HPSG is an acronym for Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar. So does the H stand for HPSG, or for head-driven-phrase-structure-grammar?
The problem again is that I’m thinking of acronyms as more like phrases than words. Take away part of a phrase and you have a different meaning; therefore, I want to say, take away part of an acronym, and you have a different meaning. Take -aser away from laser, or PSG from HPSG, and the remaining l- and H- don’t mean “laser” and “HPSG,” but just “light” and “head.” And come to think of it, I am getting a little light-headed from thinking about all this. I’ve just gotta let go of the past, and set the acronyms free, free to achieve their destiny as words.