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Portmanteau words

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 3, 2010, page 25)

Portmanteau words (mots-valises)—words formed from blended words—are ubiquitous these days. Here are a few of them.


Immortalized by the film Tanguy, a 2001 French black comedy, the word adulescent is a contraction of adult and adolescent. In this film, the parents of an adulescent with Peter Pan syndrome plot schemes to push him out of the nest. The French adulescent(e) is one of the 150 or so new words accepted in the 2010 Petit Larousse.1


Bread, cash, dough, lucre: money matters. The symbiosis of the economies of China and the United States, which dominate the world economy, was first referred to as chimerica in Niall Ferguson’s 2008 book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. The author asks whether the “economic interdependence of China and America” is “the key to global financial stability.”


Clunkernomics is formed from clunker and economics. A French equivalent could be politique “prime à la casse.” Cash for clunkers is the name of a U.S. economic policy that pays a rebate for buying a more energy-efficient car in exchange for an old gas guzzler (a charming translation is belle américaine). The equivalent Canadian program, Retire Your Ride, is called Adieu bazou in French.2 Clunkernomics is used to refer to the use of rebate programs to stimulate the economy.


A sophisticated type of treasure hunt that is growing in popularity, geocaching is composed of geo for geography and caching, the process of hiding a cache, a term used for both the computer field and hiking/camping.3 A geocacher can place a geocache, or treasure, anywhere in the world, pinpoint its location using a GPS device and announce the game online. TERMIUM Plus® gives géocachette or chasse au trésor GPS as French equivalents.


Hypermiling (écoconduite or conduite écologique)4 refers to environmentally friendly driving techniques to maximize fuel efficiency. Techniques include doing regular tune-ups, checking tire pressure and braking less frequently. In 2008, the word hypermiling was selected as the word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.5 Many people, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, prefer the term ecoDriving, with a trendy capital “D” instead of a hyphen.6


According to Michael Quinion, malvertising, formed from malicious and advertising, refers to an online scam. A typical example is an ad that offers a free antivirus scan. Malvertising is a type of malware or malicious software, which is sometimes installed on your computer when you open an email attachment.7


Smollen is a portmanteau word for the double whammy of smog and pollen. “They’re now using the term smollen to describe those who feel sick not just from pollen allergies, but also air pollution that is traditionally linked to respiratory or cardiovascular problems.”8


The term sousveillance, invented by Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto,9 is derived from the French word sous, meaning below, rather than sur, above. When Montréal police made an appeal for camera phone photos or videos of looters after the Canadiens hockey team won a game in the spring, they were counting on members of the public to assist them with sousveillance.


I can imagine Elmer Fudd saying, “Welcome to the weisure lifestyle!” Unfortunately, there is a need for this word because work is increasingly encroaching on our free time. Hotels in vacation areas even offer Internet access in rooms because, after spending the day at the beach, you might want to read your emails. American sociologist Dalton Conley coined weisure as a name for the phenomenon—a portmanteau of work and leisure.11

It remains to be seen whether all of these new words will catch on.