Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Portmanteau words’ Category

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 »

Frings and Other Things

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2004

Glen has taken up my challenge to find another word that behaves semantically like frings. What are the stakes here? If he succeeds, he will have robbed my indignation of its righteousness. That is, if my complaint is that this word’s behavior is totally unnatural, unlike anything else in the language, then Glen’s finding another word is enough to establish at least a little bit of a pattern, and trash my argument. If I still don’t love frings, it’s just due to my own cussedness. Therefore, it behooves me to spotlight the differences between his examples and my frings. Luckily, the differences are there.

First, I’ll address the easy ones. Glen writes:

Politics. Most people use it with a singular verb, but a respectable minority use it with a plural verb…. One eminent example: Winston Churchill said, “Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

Like frings, words such as politics, economics, and linguistics have what looks like a plural ending, and are often used with plural verbs. (In other words, they are or can be morphologically plural.) And like frings, these words have no meaning in the singular: *politic, *economic, and *linguistic do not exist as nouns (only as adjectives). But unlike frings, these nouns are not semantically plural: They are abstract nouns referring to fields of study. By contrast, when someone talks about frings, they are definitely talking about more than one object, just as they are when they talk about cars or telephones. In addition to abstract nouns like politics, there are the concrete nouns scissors, pants, and shorts. These, too, are morphologically plural, and can be semantically singular: These pants can refer to one object. They can also be semantically plural, as in “All my pants are torn,” but they’re still different from frings in that frings has to be semantically plural.

Now how about this example, which Glen has the audacity to throw back in my face?

Neal, back on Agoraphilia, you made a post about troops. It’s a plural noun that (at least for you and many other English speakers) has no singular, because you can’t have “a troop of one.”

This one is closer. It’s morphologically plural, has no singular meaning (for many speakers, under the non-collective meaning), and furthermore is semantically plural: troops is definitely referring to some number of soldiers higher than one. Glen goes on:

Some other possible examples: Rapids, as in the fast section of a river. For the definition of rapid that relates to rivers, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl.” You don’t often hear about someone who “shot a rapid.” Falls, as in a cascade of water. For the definition of fall that relates to water cascades, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl., often with sing. v.” You don’t often hear someone say, “Look at the beautiful fall.”

Again, he’s chosen telling examples: morphologically plural, no meaning for the singular, and semantically plural. Here is what I think the crucial difference between these words and frings is: Even though we don’t use the singular troop, rapid, and fall, there is an obvious meaning for these forms if they were to be used: one soldier, one hump of water passing over a rock, one waterfall. (In fact, I even found an attestation of one troop.) But what, as I have pointedly asked Glen and Dad, what would one fring be?

Now there is one answer they could give, one that’s so simple I was surprised I never thought of it in all these years: A fring is either a french fry or an onion ring. Wasn’t that easy? Any member of the union of the set of french fries and the set of onion rings is a fring! Just like you could define mammal as “squirrel or bat or horse or elephant or human or gorilla….” But wait. For fring, the only definition that you can use to link these two different items is the disjunctive one. Fries and onion rings by themselves are not a natural class. You could put them in the larger category of “appetizers,” or “fried side items,” but then you’d have to let in stuffed mushrooms, fried okra, and potato skins, too. Mammals, on the other hand, are a natural class, and can be defined without disjunctions, like this: “vertebrate animals that have fur and a four-chambered heart, nurse their young, and are endothermic”. (Thanks to David Dowty for some thought-provoking discussion on these disjunctive definitions.)

At this point, frings still behaves differently semantically from the other examples, specifically in having an irreducibly disjunctive definition. The only problem now is what to do with some other pesky long-existing words with irreducibly disjunctive definitions: brother/sister-in-law, aunt, uncle. All I can offer here is that whereas separate terms exist for the two components of frings (i.e., fries and onion rings), such terms don’t exist for the two different kinds of brother- or sister-in-law, or aunts, or uncles. A member of the set of frings will be a fry or a ring, but a member from the set of uncles will be an uncle or … an uncle.

I think I dodged that last bullet. But too bad, when I was writing my post about bell peppers the other night, I suddenly realized that I had found another example of a frings-type word: morphologically and semantically plural, no meaning for the singular. I was thinking about the way a grocery store here sells packages containing one red, one yellow, and one green bell pepper, and labels them “Stoplight Peppers.” Pick out any pepper from one of these packages, and it won’t be a stoplight pepper. It’ll be a red, yellow, or green pepper. And I can’t just define stoplight pepper as bell pepper, since that definition would include orange and purple bell peppers, too. So why did I chuckle at this term, while I still grit my teeth at frings? I guess the answer must just be that I’ve mellowed out between the time I first heard fring and when I ran across stoplight peppers.

Curses, Glen wins! But let the record show: It wasn’t his arguments that closed the case–it was my example, mine! I could have kept it quiet, but no, that would have been incompatible with my deep respect for good sportsmanship and unflinching intellectual honesty.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Portmanteau words, The Fring Cycle | 5 Comments »