Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Portmanteau words’ Category

Kicks for Kooks

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2016

Keck Observatory

One of the things I didn’t mention in my review of John McWhorter’s Words on the Move was his use of minimal pairs to explore the vowels of English. A minimal pair is a pair of words or phrases that are identical in every aspect but one, chosen so as to illustrate how this one aspect results in a difference in meaning or grammaticality. For example, most English speakers find the sentence What and where will I sleep? ungrammatical, but if we change just one word, by replacing the verb sleep with the verb teach, the sentence improves for many speakers: What and where will I teach? This fact can then be used as evidence for your analysis of the syntax of wh-questions, or the semantics of verbs, or maybe other theoretical questions. In phonology, minimal pairs target not words, but speech sounds. So for example, we know that the vowels /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are two different vowels in English, as opposed to variant pronunciations of the same vowel, because words such as putt [pʌt] and put [pʊt] mean different things. (If this seems obvious to you, consider that /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ really were variants of a single vowel at one time, when blood rhymed with could.)

McWhorter tried to do this with all the English vowels at once, assembling what I guess you could call a minimal series of words, all of the form /bVt/, where V stands for any vowel. Here’s the series he used:

  1. /i/ beet
  2. /ɪ/ bit
  3. /e/ bait
  4. /ɛ/ bet
  5. /æ/ bat
  6. /u/ boot
  7. /ʊ/ book
  8. /o/ boat
  9. /ɔ/ bought
  10. /ɑ/ baht
  11. /ʌ/ but

His series isn’t perfect; notice that book breaks the pattern. As McWhorter explains, “There is, in general, no series of words that all begins with the same consonant and end with some same other one that includes every single one of the possible vowels in between.” This may also explain why for the last item in the list, McWhorter chose the marginally English word baht, the name of the Thai unit of currency. If he hadn’t, he would have had to choose the English bot, which refers to either an internet app for repetitive tasks or a botfly larva, and maybe he thought these concepts were more likely to require explanation than Thai money. Of course, if you’re among the many speakers who have the cot/caught merger, bought, bot, and baht all sound the same anyway.

So as you can see, trying to find these minimal series provides plenty of excitement, thrills, and surprises. One series that I’ve thought about now and again is the one consisting of monosyllables beginning and ending with /k/. I guess it started when I was a kid, and first heard the insult kook /kuk/. I found it fascinating that in writing, this word was distinguished from the word cook /kʊk/ not by changing the double-O in the middle, but by replacing the C with a K! In writing this post, I’ve also discovered that in addition to referring to a crazy person, kook is also a term for a clueless surfer wannabe.

As a teenager, I learned the verb cack (out) /kæk/ from this George Carlin bit on death (starting at 7:43)–

–but I’ve never actually heard anyone else use this expression, and I haven’t found it in dictionary searches. That’s OK though, because cack can also mean “a baby’s heelless shoe with a soft leather sole,” as well as “shit”.

Years later, as a homeowner, I noticed that the plumbers and handymen we’ve dealt with prefer to talk about sealing countertops and windows with caulking instead of just plain caulk. Knowing about the cot/caught merger mentioned above, I suspect that they’re trying to avoid the potentially embarrassing ambiguity of a cock/caulk merger, whether because they’ve merged those vowels or their customers may have. In any case, for speakers who maintain a distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, cock /kɑk/ and caulk /kɔk/ belong in the series.

Filling in the rest of the series, some easy ones are kick /kɪk/, cake /kek/, and coke /kok/, but after those, the going gets tougher. Even so, in the past few years I’ve been pleased to see the rest of the series emerging. I learned about the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. And it turns out that keek is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, meaning to “peep or look furtively”. Apparently, it’s also the name of a Vine-like social medium that I never heard about until I looked it up while writing this post.

Only one last, holdout vowel kept my “K” minimal series incomplete: the mid-central vowel /ʌ/. So close, but alas, cuck is not an English word. Or … is it?

  1. /i/ keek
  2. /ɪ/ kick
  3. /e/ cake
  4. /ɛ/ Keck
  5. /æ/ cack
  6. /u/ kook
  7. /ʊ/ cook
  8. /o/ coke
  9. /ɔ/ caulk
  10. /ɑ/ cock
  11. /ʌ/ cuck

It is! Thanks to the recent surging popularity of speech attacking feminism and the politically correct people who believe in it, I’ve learned that cuck is indeed an English word, and has been since at least 2007. It’s a clipping of cuckold, an archaic-sounding but still-current term for a man whose wife has extramarital sex. Cuckold is etymologically related to cuckoo, the connection being that just as cuckoos force their unwitting victims to provide for the cuckoo’s offspring, so a “cuckoo’d” man might end up caring for another man’s child. In an interesting connection to another item in the series, kook might also derive from cuckoo by clipping. But shortening cuckold to cuck isn’t the end of the story. The new development for 2016 is summed up in this article from GQ:

The word gained political potency during the 2016 election in the portmanteau “cuckservative” (cuck + conservative) used to imply that the mainstream conservatives of the Jeb Bush variety are weak and effeminate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not a cuckservative. He says what he wants and doesn’t care if it’s offensive. In reference to Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” radio host Rush Limbaugh snarked, “If Trump were your average, ordinary, cuckolded Republican, he would have apologized by now.”

But Donald Trump doesn’t apologize. He went on to win the Republican presidential nomination as Jeb Bush, the one-time favorite, was irrevocably set back by a simple insult from Trump delivered with an invisible wink: “low-energy.”

Since The Donald bested the field of cuckservatives with his manly virility and full head of hair, those who couldn’t see a good insult go to waste have continued to use it in its shortened form–cuck–which applies first to anyone supporting Hillary, but also anyone who would challenge Donald Trump on his spelling, his logic, or his facts.

Read the rest of the GQ article for some other interesting history and analysis. But just to recap the word’s morphological history, cuckold gave us cuck via clipping, which gave us cuckservative via blending, which has now given us cuck once again, via another clipping. Lovely! Inflammatory and hateful language has completed our /kVk/ minimal series.

Posted in Morphology, Politics, Portmanteau words, Vowels | 12 Comments »

Headless Aviators

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2013

I didn’t even know “aviator sunglasses” were a recognized type of sunglasses, but apparently they are, and so much so that the full compound aviator sunglasses has become the headless compound aviators. My discovery of this was a bit startling, because it didn’t happen simply by me hearing someone talking about wearing aviators. Instead, when I took Doug and Adam for their eye exams, I saw on the reception counter a cardboard display showing small, laughing children wearing colorful, plastic-framed, wide-lensed sunglasses. The altered Top Gun logo told me that these unbelievably stylish sunglasses were called Babiators.

All at once, not only did I have to infer the existence of aviators as a noun referring to a kind of eyewear instead of a group of airplane pilots; I also had to take it in as part of an offensively cute portmanteau word, in a display for a product that shouldn’t even exist.

However, it is an interesting portmanteau. Component A: baby. Component B: aviators. On the one hand, you could break this portmanteau down as just baby + aviator: the beginning of the first component, the end of the other, and that’s all. On the other hand, there are some portmanteaus like the ones I described in this piece for

Sometimes, though, an identical string of sounds at the end of one word and the beginning of the other allows for a blend in which neither word has to give up anything. In a portmanteau such as bromance, everything is kept intact. Like an electron shared between two covalently bonded atoms, the ro belongs to both bro and romance. The same thing happens in guesstimate and netiquette.

Is babiators one of those? Almost, but not quite: [ebi] and [evi]. The [b] and the [v] don’t match. Still, they’re both voiced consonants made with the lips. A similar kind of overlap happens with the voiceless counterparts [p] and [f] in the verb refudiate that Sarah Palin raised our awareness of. (For what it’s worth, there are two differences with refudiate. First, the component refute still loses its final [t] consonant instead of being completely preserved. Second, I believe it was an unintentional mashup, not a consciously blended coinage.) So, was babiators created by the same kind of blending that gives us guesstimate and netiquette, or by the simpler kind that gives us spork? Or by some kind of discontinuous overlap?

On the semantics side, this is a portmanteau that was only possible once aviator sunglasses had become the headless aviators. The phrase babiator sunglasses would have to mean sunglasses worn by babiators. And whatever those might be, it would be even sillier than the actual idea behind the trademarked Babiators.

Posted in Compound words, Portmanteau words | 2 Comments »

New Development for Backformed Kudo

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2013

Singular KudoA couple of years ago, in a post about the backformation of the Boy Scouting-related singular noun Webelo from Webelos, I mentioned the similar backformation of kudo from the Greek borrowing kudos. Here are a couple of examples from COCA (the source of all the other examples in this post, except as noted):

  • And there was a little kudo called the Award of Merit
  • One even resulted in the ultimate scientific kudo.

The OED has kudo from as far back as 1941, though I’m not so sure about that citation. But their 1950 citation is a clear example:

A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.

This backformation is the most obvious sign that someone thinks of kudos as a plural, but other clues can be detected even in the absence of the giveaway form kudo:

  1. Pronunciation of the s in kudos as [z], as if it were the plural marker
  2. Lengthening of the /o/ before this [z] — the same difference you hear in the pronunciation of gross [groʊs] and grows [groʊːz]
  3. Plural verb agreement when kudos is the subject of a clause:
    • Kudos go to San Diegobased Qualcomm Corporate Foundation.
    • Critical kudos acknowledge the success of her approach.
  4. Use of count-noun determiners with kudos:
    • Many kudos for the essay by guest host Sharon Paul
    • A few kudos to get you started

Three months ago, I saw another step in the development of backformed kudo: its use as the modifying part of a compound noun. Compound nouns usually, but not always, have a singular as their first element — the noun that modifies the head noun. For example, we have gumball machines, not gumballs machines. So even someone who might never have occasion to reveal a backformation by talking about “one rabie” might well talk about attaching rabie tags to their pets’ collars. Similarly, in the October 5, 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly, there was this sentence about TV’s Emmy awards:

The last time nipple covers, shrimp truckers, and demented garden gnomes were mentioned during an Emmy telecast was the year 19 hundred and … never. But that’s what made the 64th annual kudofest on Sept. 23 so engrossing–if a tad bewildering. (“Best and Worst of the Awards,” Lynette Rice, p. 21)

COCA provides two more such examples, also from EW, and also about award shows:

  • He predicts a shiny night for four-Buckle nominee Brad Paisley, forecasts Sugarland to win Video of the Year for ” All I Want to Do, ” and believes that this kudocast will appeal to those beyond the country-fried set. (2009)
  • If you loved seeing Jack Black … rock the children silly on the big screen, you might contract a case of the giggles watching him host this kiddie kudocast (say that 10 times fast). (2006)

However, I’ve discovered that kudo isn’t always a backformation. If you’re talking about mixed martial arts, it’s a portmanteau of karate and judo!

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Portmanteau words, TV | 6 Comments »

Congestion Question

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2008

Saturday morning: As I scrubbed the dried-up remains of last night’s cat food out of the bowls, Doug entered the kitchen. He sniffed. “Blueberry muffins!” he exclaimed. His favorite. He looked around to see where they were. None were in sight. “Oh,” he said. “I forgot. I always smell blueberry muffins when my nose is stoffed up.”

How unusual, I thought. This calls for some investigation. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Portmanteau words, The darndest things | 11 Comments »

Most Creative Word of the Year

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2008

A tenured professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine. A frequently sought-after speaker in medical schools and teaching hospitals. Author of many journals articles, book chapters, and books, including There Is No Gene for Good Teaching: A Handbook on Lecturing for Medical Teachers and Creative Medical Teaching. Coauthor of many more, including Physician As Teacher and Preceptors as Teachers: A Guide to Clinical Teaching, with Thomas L. Schwenk; and Executive Skills for Medical Faculty and The Chief Resident as Manager, with Elaine Weiss. Literal-Minded readers, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you… Neal Whitman!

Neal Whitman comes to you tonight courtesy of the American Dialect Society’s winner of the Most Creative category for the 2007 Word of the Year. It’s not the word you’ll be reading about in the newspapers today, the overall Word of the Year winner; that honor belongs to subprime. Yes, I’m here in Chicago at the 2008 Linguistic Society of America conference. The ADS always has its annual conference concurrently, and makes annual news with its selection of Word of the Year. This year for the first time, I attended the voting, so I got to hear firsthand the votes for all the categories: Most Useful, Most Euphemistic, Most and Least Likely to Succeed, and others.

The winner for Most Creative Word of the Year is a portmanteau of Google and the German loan-word Doppelgänger, which means a lookalike (literally “double-goer”). It’s the person (other than yourself) that comes up when you Google yourself. You might not have one; the Tensor has just informed me that he doesn’t. Or you might be like the gentleman who spoke in favor of this word before the voting, a person who never even appears in the top 100 Google hits for his own name: one David Bowie. Or you might be like me, with exactly one Googlegänger.

Posted in Portmanteau words | 3 Comments »

Frings Redux

Posted by Neal on March 27, 2006

As I was going through my old postings imported from Blogger and tagging them with categories, I came across about the word frings that I decided they deserved their own category. Longtime readers may recall that for many years I have objected to this word on the grounds that it is clearly a plural word, but its singular form has no meaning. Or at least, none that you can formulate without resorting to an or: “a french fry or an onion ring.” And why is it so bad to have an or in the definition? Well, my problem with it has been that it paves the way toward making up words for any set of objects that don’t form any kind of a class. You could create a word, say gritch, and define it as “a toothbrush or a sea cucumber.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Lexical semantics, Portmanteau words, The Fring Cycle | 6 Comments »

First Vog, Now Vlog

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2005

I’ve learned that there is such a thing as a video web log, or video blog, and that they are also known as vlogs. I wish this word all the worst in gaining currency in the language. First of all, it blatantly disregards a phonotactic rule of English: Syllables don’t begin with the cluster [vl] (except in borrowings such as Vlad(imir) and, uh, I guess that’s all)

And second, you can’t just go chopping off the b- in blog–that’s the only thing that distinguishes web logs from any other kind of logs. Now what am I going to call it if I decide to do a daily video journal that isn’t posted on the web? No, I’m not going to do one, but it’s the principle of the thing, man! It’d’ve been nice if the coiners of vlog had had a little more consideration for potential keepers of non-web-based video journals.

Incidentally, if all this is sounding a bit familiar, you may be remembering my complaint about another blended word that started with v-, ended with -og, and obliterated essential information inherited from one of the source words. That would be vog.

Posted in Portmanteau words | 2 Comments »

Beanie Weenies with a Side of Frings

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2005

As if from the depths of a deep-fryer, the issue of frings has resurfaced. In a series of posts last year, I explained why my brother and my dad were totally off-base in according legitimacy to frings, a portmanteau word referring to a mixture of french fries and onion rings. In short, it was because frings was “a plural noun which could denote a mass of stuff, but whose singular form didn’t denote anything.” Pick up any item from a pile of frings, and you won’t have a fring. It will be either a fry or a ring.

In subsequent comments and discussions, similar cases were brought up as possible precedents for this word:

  1. Words such as scissors, pants, politics. Unlike frings, however, these words can refer to single items. That is, though these words are all morphologically plural, only frings must be semantically plural, referring as it does to a collection of items.
  2. Words such as rapids. These are morphologically and semantically plural, but unlike with frings, it is still possible to imagine a meaning for the singular noun rapid if a speaker were to use such a form. Again, there is no such thing as a single fring. It’s either a fry or a ring.
  3. Words such as clothes. This is morphologically and semantically plural, but unlike with frings, the singular form doesn’t even exist. Even though you can readily conceive a meaning for the nonexistent singular noun *clothe, you have to say it as article of clothing. In contrast, fring sounds just fine, but doesn’t have a meaning.

Finally, though, I accidentally found another frings-type word myself: stoplight peppers. Choose any bell pepper out of a package labeled “stoplight peppers,” and it will be either a red, yellow, or green bell pepper. Only when the three come together can they be referred to in the plural as stoplight peppers. Naturally, once I identified this example, I withdrew my long-standing objection to frings.

Now I thought we had all moved past this issue, but it seems that Glen was not entirely satisfied. In this post, my gracious concession is deemed “grudging,” and my deciding example is “questionable,” while his own naive examples have become “excellent.” What prompts such an attack? Let’s see:

But now I see the opportunity to convert my TKO into a KO. You see, while DGM refers to the delicacy in question as ‘beanie-weenie,’ in Neal’s and my home–and I suspect in many parts of the country–the dish is called ‘beanie-weenies.’ It’s morphologically plural (‘beanie-weenies’ has a standard plural ending), it’s syntactically plural (you would say, “My beanie-weenies are getting cold”), and there’s no such thing as a lone ‘beanie-weenie’ (it’s always a bean or a weenie).

Yes, it’s true. There’s no such thing as one beanie-weenie. And furthermore, I’m pretty sure the term predates frings. So yes, beanie-weenies and stoplight peppers can both join frings to populate the class of morphologically and semantically plural words with no meaning for the singular.

Still and all, I have to say that I’m very disappointed in Glen’s attitude. He even concluded his argument with, “Take that, Neal!” Glen, Glen, Glen, it’s not about who’s right or wrong here. You and I are working together in our search for the truth!

Which reminds me: Glen states that this picture was taken on Christmas Day. Well, it wasn’t taken on Christmas day! It was taken on December 28th.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Portmanteau words, The Fring Cycle | 2 Comments »


Posted by Neal on February 21, 2005

In my last post, I mentioned that Tom W. Bell at Agoraphilia wrote about the verb misunderestimate, famously used by George W. Bush, and took it to be a portmanteau word (i.e. a blend) combining misunderstand and underestimate. I then referred to Glen’s comment in response; his basic objection is that misunderestimate doesn’t look like a portmanteau in the same way that brunch or motel does. It just looks like underestimate with the prefix mis- attached to it, which he would then expect to have the meaning, “to incorrectly underestimate”. Now you may be asking, “When would I ever have need of a verb with that meaning?” Well, Glen constructs a rather complicated situation in which such a verb would be appropriate:

[T]here are times when you really *want* to underestimate something — such as, for instance, when you’re guessing the age of someone you want to flatter. Example: Suppose you wish to flatter a woman who appears to be 30. So you say she looks 27 — but it turns out she’s 23. In that case, I would say you misunderestimated her age.

I agree with Glen in theory. However, this scenario is so unusual that I think speakers would be more likely to just use several sentences to convey it, rather than use the single verb misunderestimate, which I think would not help hearers understand the situation. If this situation occurred so commonly and were discussed often enough, then I could see misunderestimate coming to be used to refer to it, but I don’t think that’s happened yet.

Tom, in a later comment, defends misunderestimate as an ordinary blend, pointing out that George W. Bush really does seem to mean “to misunderstand and underestimate”. But then he gets to wondering if there could be other blends like this one, saying:

Just think of all the new words we could create using the “AB + BC = ABC” template that I used in interpreting “misunderestimate”!
bankrupt + rupture = bankrupture (explosively destructive financial insolvency)
welfare + farewell = welfarewell (social service reform)

I’ll bet that your brother has a name for that sort of neologism.

The only name I have is portmanteau or blend. For the more specific version, such that AB+BC is blended into ABC, I don’t have a name. I can’t think of too many words that follow the pattern. In fact, even misunderestimate doesn’t follow it, since A = mis-, C = estimate, but B is either understand or just plain under. The only word I can think of that fits is guesstimate, where A = [g], B = [εs], and C = [tImet]. It’s not one of my favorite blends. Anyone I’ve heard use it could just as easily have used plain estimate; I’ve never heard it used such that it definitely means “to arrive at a number by a combination of guessing and estimating”. Interesting, though, that it also involves the word estimate. I wonder if there’s such a thing as underguesstimate out there. Let’s see… What do you know, there is!

You could also order a big salad for lunch too if you are really worried about it. better to overguesstimate points then underguesstimate.(link)

And how about misunderguesstimate? One guy’s done it:

If we blame everything since Lockerbie on Osama, I’d misunderguesstimate about 4,000 murdered by Al Qaida.(link)

I found a few misoverestimate, too, but used mostly for humorous effect, in talking about President Bush. And for misoverguesstimate? Nothing at all yet.

Posted in Portmanteau words | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Acronyms, Portmanteau words | 4 Comments »