Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

4 Responses to “Double Portmanteaus and Stacked Acronyms”

  1. My favorite stacked acronym is from an old joke. A guy goes to the doctor and finds out he has HAGS — a combination of herpes, AIDS, gonorrhea, and syphilis. The doctor refers him to a special live-in clinic for HAGS patients, where he’ll be fed only pancakes and flounder. “Pancakes and flounder? Will those cure my HAGS?” he asks. “No,” says the doctor, “but those are the only foods they can slide under the door.”

    And hey, why’d the call it DELPH-IN instead of DELPHI? DELPHI is a perfectly good acronym, and it doesn’t require that extra N that doesn’t stand for an independent word.

  2. bkmarcus said

    Am I the only one who uses recursive acronyms?

    A recursive acronym is the recursive case of a stacked acronym.

    For instance, when I was a kid, I couldn’t remember what M*A*S*H stood for. Somethingorother Army Surgical Hospital.

    The M actually stood for Mobile, but I didn’t know or couldn’t remember, so I just decided that the M stood for M*A*S*H.

    M*A*S*H Army Surgical Hospital.

  3. Anonymous said

    DELPH-IN = Deep Linguistic Processing with HPSG Initiative
    HPSG = Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar.

    “So does the H stand for HPSG, or for head-driven-phrase-structure-grammar?”

    Well, given how HPSG works, I’d have to say that the H in DELPH-IN stands for “head”.

    (Think about it.)

    BTW, do you know that BlogLines isn’t able to read your atom feed? (I think it may not like the MacRoman encoding.)

    The Tensor

  4. Anonymous said

    Linguist deconstructs the meanings of ‘dude’

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