"What is a Portmanteau?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is a Portmanteau? Transcript

By Raymond Malewitz

A portmanteau is an old-fashioned suitcase with a hinge in the middle that can hold equal amounts of luggage in its two storage compartments. HG Wells had this sense of the word in mind when he wrote the opening sentence to his famous novel Invisible Man:

“The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow… carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.”

Now that roller bags and backpacks have replaced portmanteaus as the go-to luggage choice for savvy visible and invisible travelers, you’d expect the word, like the object, to have become a mere footnote of history.

Thanks to the author Lewis Carroll, however, portmanteaus live on in the English language, though they now mean something quite different.

Here’s the story: At the start of Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass, a young girl named Alice steps through a mirror above her fireplace and into the looking-glass world.  One of the first things she spots in that world is a book that contains a very strange poem called “Jabberwocky.” When Alice reads the opening stanza of the poem, she’s immediately (and understandably) confused.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Later in the story, Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, and because he’s so good with words, she asks him to help her to understand the poem.  In the following passage, a new meaning of the term portmanteau enters the English language:

'That's enough to begin with,' Humpty Dumpty interrupted: 'there are plenty of hard words there. "Brillig" means four o'clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.'

'That'll do very well,' said Alice: 'and "slithy"?'

'Well, "slithy" means "lithe and slimy". "Lithe" is the same as "active". You see it's like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.'

Readers of Carroll’s work were as delighted by this simile as they were with Jabberwocky’s wordplay, and they began to use the term “portmanteau” to describe situations in which two words were packed together to create a new word.

I say packed together rather than placed together, because unlike compound words, portmanteaus always drop some letters and sounds as the two words are being joined. When I say, “The coronavirus is driving me crazy,” I’m using a compound word to describe a virus with a corona—a crown-like set of projections.  When I say, “I need a quarantini to calm my nerves,” I’m using a portmanteau that combines the two words “quarantine” and “martini” while also shortening one of them.

We encounter portmanteaus everywhere in our contemporary media landscape: Brexit, chillax, email, cosplay, Brangelina, and so on.  Unlike Carroll’s original example, most of the time, these portmanteaus are not only funny but also easy to recognize and define, which is why they so often end up in headlines of newspapers and popular magazines.

When literary artists coin new portmanteaus, however, they, like Lewis Carroll, often make us work a bit harder to understand them.

Consider the following passage from Toni Morrison’s monumental work Beloved, in which the lead character, Sethe speaks to her daughter, Denver about her memories of life as a slave:

“I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”

Rememory—a portmanteau of the verb remember and the noun memory—is Sethe’s description of her mind repeatedly returning to the site of physical and emotional trauma years after those events have occurred. This vivid description of post-traumatic stress figuratively consumes her life in the novel, as the ghost of her departed daughter, Beloved, returns, and seems to feed upon these horrible rememories.

At the same time, rememory also conveys the sense that this trauma isn’t just in Sethe’s mind: many aspects of American society still bear the horrible mark of the country’s slave legacy, shaping institutions “out there, in the world,” as much as they continue to shape Sethe’s internal world.

As this powerful example suggests, over a hundred years after Lewis Carroll created his simile, literary artists and everyday people are still packing quite a bit of luggage into their portmanteaus. Our continuing obsession with portmanteaus means that this literary device, unlike the Invisible Man and his suitcase, are unlikely to disappear from our culture anytime soon.

Further Resources for Teachers

Science fiction offers numerous examples of portmanteaus.  This makes sense, as the genre attempts to create new ideas and objects that update concepts and objects of the present.  See, for example, William Gibson's Neuromancer (itself a portmanteau) or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which creates strange portmanteaus and other word mashups using preexistent Russian and English words (for example, "horrorshow," which combines the Russian word for "good" or "beautiful" and the English words horror and show).