Words You Didn’t Know Were Portmanteaus

Combo words in hiding

Portmanteaus are created by blending parts of two words and combining two different meanings to make a new word. Brunch is a great example, a word for the meal that’s not quite breakfast or lunch. With some portmanteaus, it’s easy to see through the disguise and tell which two words are combined (like blogebrity); with others, the two words are pros at hiding.


Say it out loud, like this: “bahdayshus.” Does it sound like another word you know? How about audacious? Great! We’ve got the second word down. Now for the first. There are two ways to solve this one. Either “bod” relates to body, or we boldly go where no one else has gone. It’s believed bodacious merges body or boldly and audacious. Use it whenever something’s “outstanding,” “brazen,” or “voluptuous”—or all three combined!


Chortle is just plain fun. Think of what happens when someone’s said something so hilarious your cute laugh turns piggy. Yes, chortle is the lovely marriage of chuckle and snort, a word blend that deftly pushes “uck” to the curb. This gleeful word was crafted by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass (1871). We’re glad he didn’t blend snort with giggle, though—“gortle” wouldn’t have made it long.


This portmanteau is actually not too difficult to uncloak. Dumbfound harnesses the qualities of speechlessness and confusion. Our first word, dumb means “temporarily unable to speak.” But confuse isn’t our second word here (otherwise we’d be “dumbfused”). So where does dumb find found? It merges with confound, a synonym for confuse (but with the added sense of amazement).


When we say we’re “hooked on ebonics,” you’ll probably recognize that onics comes from the word phonics, which relates to speech sounds. The first part of ebonics (eb-) is from a rich synonym of black that half-rhymes with melody. In 1973 a group of black scholars harmonized the words ebony and phonics to create ebonics, a term descriptive of “black speech.” This was an important contribution, because the word ebonics did away with the pejorative associations of earlier coined terms like “Nonstandard Negro English.”


Like ebonics, electrocute is formed by fusing the first half of one word to the ending of another word. In this case, we get electr- from electricity and –cute from execute. Unlike ebonics, we’ve got a gruesome funeral march with this word’s meaning. The first electrocution, or “execution by electricity” took place in New York State in 1890 on William Kemmler, convicted of murdering his lover with an axe. The method was first suggested in 1881 by a dentist who happened to see a drunkard instantly killed after touching the terminals of an electric generator. 


We can’t come across this word and not recall the adorable Disney character from The Little Mermaid, who often seemed to worry or panic. Think of how someone panicking moves when freaking out, and you might uncover the two words hidden in flounder. Got it? The words flounce and founder are well camouflaged, aren’t they? Flounce is a great word to describe spasmodic movements of the body, and founder means “to sink or fall.” Put them together, and that pretty much sums up our helpless struggles in and out of the water.


A pixel has nothing to do with a pixie or an elf, though if you tell your kids that there are pixels on your phone screen, they might believe it lights up thanks to magical sprites. A pixel is a cross between pix (or pics) and element, and it refers to the “the smallest element of an image that can be individually processed in a video display system.” The word came into use in the 1960s; it’s possible it originated when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory used it to describe how TV signals work.


Galumph is another portmanteau cleverly disguised by Lewis Carroll in his poem “Jabberwocky.” The poem’s hero slays the monster Jabberwock, and goes “galumphing” back to town with its head. Picture our brave hero astride a horse and you might get where the gal– comes from … Gallop you say? Callooh! Callay! (please read the poem if you don’t get this). Now the “–umph” word. We’d call decapitating a Jabberwock’s head a triumph. Unfortunately for our galloping and triumphant hero, the word galumph has taken a heavy blow over the years; it’s now associated with plodding or clumsy movements.


A particularly salient word in the 21st century, but not a new one (and the activity it describes is even older). Gerrymandering is dividing states or counties into election districts that expand one political party’s voting strength while reducing the opposing party’s electoral power. This practice was born even before the US Congress, but the portmanteau was first recorded in 1812 when then-governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry orchestrated a redistricting to favor his party (it didn’t work). On a map, the contours of the scheme resembled a salamander. Thus, the lexical amphibian gerrymander was born.


When biochemist Casimir Funk coined the word vitamine, he thought he was describing an amine (“a class of compounds derived from ammonia”) that sustains life, or vita in the Latin. He got a lot of things right: he discovered a link between certain foods and health, which he attributed to vitamins, and he studied the nutrients that would come to be known as vitamins C, D, B1, and B2. So we’ll give him a pass on the initial spelling of vitamin. The E was dropped when it was discovered thiamine was an amine, but other vitamins are not.


You know what glitz means. It isn’t a buttery Ritz cracker with edible glitter. And it’s not a spritz of sweat when a fastball smashes into the catcher’s glove. No, we’re not looking for cracker brands or baseball gloves to uncloak the two words in glitz. Instead, glitz merges glamour and Ritzthe luxury hotel kind, named after the Swiss entrepreneur César Ritz who built this eponymous palace of luxury in 1900s Paris. Thank goodness we’ve got glitz … we can’t think of a better mate for glam!


The word frenemy is fairly easy to deconstruct: a frenemy is a friend and an enemy. While Sex and the City popularized this term in the 1990s, this phrase has actually been around since well before Carrie Bradshaw started drinking Cosmopolitans. Some attribute its coinage to another socialite and her sisters: aristocratic novelist Jessica Mitford. In a 1977 article, Mitford noted her sister and a “frenemy played together constantly … all the time disliking each other heartily.” But the word might date back to the 1950s—or at least 1953—when the Nevada State Journal published a joke headline with a variation on the term: “Howz about calling the Russians our Frienemies?” No matter who invented it, frenemy is a handy term referring to “a person or group that is friendly toward another because the relationship brings benefits, but harbors feelings of resentment or rivalry.”


If you’re familiar with the 1970s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man, then you know bionic has to do with power supported by technology. After the character Steve Austin is injured, his body is rebuilt with cybernetic parts, endowing him with superhuman powers. He’s a biological human enhanced by electronic implants. Big hint. Did you guess which words are hiding? Coined in 1958 by a US doctor and Air Force colonel, bionic combines biology and electronics.


Sadly, another slideshow is about to end, and so we’ll say “goodbye.” We’ve tried to uncloak as many sneaky portmanteaus as possible, but we’ve saved for last the one that’s done the best job hiding in plain sight. Evidently, there wasn’t anything originally “good” about “bye.” Goodbye is a blended contraction of God be with yeFunny enough, if our French Inspector Clouseau were here, he might bid you adieu, literally “to God.”

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