Things Not Quite Said

A conversation about words



Making one word from two, or parts of two, is a useful way to neologize. Overlook. Mockumentary. Frankenfood. Workaholic. Other examples I’ve seen recently include sluggard (sluggish and laggard),  fauxpology (faux and apology), and hatriot (hater and patriot).

Broadly speaking, linguists call such terms blends. Language maven William Safire preferred portmanteaus (because in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty said of creating new words by combining old ones, “It’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word,” referring to a suitcase with twin compartments). In her novel Room, Emma Donoghue’s protagonists called their own blended terms—such as scave for “scared and brave”—word sandwiches. Merriam-Webster considers them mashup words (“mashup” itself being an example). Why not simply call such words hybrids?

Hybrid words have a long history. They include brunch (breakfast and lunch, 1896), smog (smoke and fog, 1905), motel (motor and hotel, 1925), and caplet (capsule and tablet, 1937). But hybridizing has become more popular than ever as a way to create new words without having to cut them from whole cloth.

This is particularly common in Silicon Valley, where coopetition is a way of life among frenemies who rely on emoticons to communicate, and who swap shareware with each other. To satirize this predilection, Wired’s Jeff Howe called online consultation with large groups crowdsourcing (and later wrote a book by that title). His spoofy creation entered the lexicon—and became one of the most successful hybrid words of modern times.


Congratulations to the winners of our last contest about euphemisms. These folks received tote bags:

Rob Armstrong: lipo-loading

Emily Coolidge Toker: inter-generational cohabitation

Rochelle Levine: midlife girth enhancement

Erin Lupfer: collecting and disseminating social information

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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