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Sext me your gnargoyle

Op-Ed

Mashed-up words are older than Chaucer and as fresh as Colbert.

December 26, 2011|By Judith B. Herman
  • Author Lewis Carroll, seen here in a photograph from the mid 1870s, coined portmanteau words.
Author Lewis Carroll, seen here in a photograph from the mid 1870s, coined… (AFP/Getty Images )

After reading about Is Anyone Up? — the website that gives indie bands exposure in the literal sense — I rushed to my computer to check it out. Would you believe me if I told you I was less interested in naked bodies than in the language?

In addition to naked self-promotion by bands, the site includes "revenge porn," revealing photos of just plain folks, generally submitted by ex-lovers. Those considered unattractive are labeled "gnargoyles," a word created by combining "gnarly" or "gnarled" and "gargoyle."

As it happens, I have been blogging about the bottomless (in the sense of "inexhaustible," not "stripped from the waist down") font of new words refreshing the language through the process of blending. "Blend" is the term linguists use for a word formed by combining parts of existing words. "Gnargoyle" is a blend. So is another term that crops up in regard to Is Anyone Up?: "sexting," a blend of "sex" and "texting."

Back in 1871 Lewis Carroll coined the term "portmanteau words" for blends. "Portmanteau" originally referred to saddlebags or a double-sided suitcase, and by the 17th century the term was used figuratively for a mixture of disparate ideas or arguments. In "Through the Looking-Glass," Humpty Dumpty combined "lithe" and "slimy" to create the word "slithy" and mashed up "flimsy" and "miserable" to produce "mimsy." "Slithy" and "mimsy" faded as fast as the Cheshire Cat, but "chortle," Carroll's portmanteau of "chuckle" and "snort," is a lively and lingering addition to English.

Lewis Carroll may have called attention to portmanteau words or blends, but they predate him by centuries. Even a bit before Chaucer's time there was a word "drubly," meaning "turbid" and "troubled." Here's what the Oxford English Dictionary Online says about its etymology: "apparently a blend of Middle English trobly, TROUBLY adj. from French, and Old English dróf, dróflic (Middle English *drov(e)ly) turbid, disturbed." (The asterisk indicates "a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred.")

One source the dictionary cites is a 1425 travel book called "Mandeville's Travels": "If [th]e water be clere [...th]e bawme es gude, and, if it be thikk and drubly, it es sophisticate."

"Bawme" is now spelled b-a-l-m. "Sophisticate" meant "counterfeit" or "adulterated, mixed with some inferior substance," like a bad drug score.

So blends go way back, but people are inventing new ones every day, especially Stephen Colbert and his writers. They must have the old Osterizer churning round the clock the way they spin out those blends. Colbert coined "mantasy" for men's fantasies, following an existing trend of masculinizing words by sticking an "m" at the beginning, like calling a man's purse a "murse" and a male nanny a "manny." Colbert also came up with "Wikiality," from "wiki" and "reality," based on his assertion that if enough people believe something on Wikipedia, it becomes reality. Recently he said the Colbert Super PAC offered an Occupy Wall Street "Co-Optportunity." To find more of Colbert's neologisms, go to http://www.colbertnation.com and search for Colbertisms.

Blends are often flippant and slangy, but some coined about a hundred years ago have become part of our standard language. "Brunch," a blend of "breakfast" and "lunch" dates from 1895. "Motel" (1925) was the brand name of a chain of "motor hotels." The OED Online has a disconcerting citation from the Daily Graphic, July 10, 1905: "Dr. H. A. des Vœux, hon. treasurer of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, read a paper on 'Fog and Smoke'. He said it required no science to see that there was something produced in great cities which was not found in the country, and that was smoky fog, or what was known as 'smog.'" A pessimist would have to say the only progress we've made in a hundred-plus years is exporting coal-fired power plants to the countryside.

Colbert isn't the only one cranking out new blends these days. Even the FBI got into the game. They arrested a Florida man for targeting celebrities with computer intrusion following an investigation they labeled "Operation Hackerazzi," a blend of "hacker" and "paparazzi." Speaking of celebrities, blended couple names like "Brangelina" and "TomKat" don't seem to be as popular as they were a few years ago, but we've still got TV shows with blended names like "Suburgatory" and "Californication." And there will always be slang words of praise like "bodacious" (a blend of "bold" and "audacious," which the OED traces to 1845) and "bootylicious" to counter put-downs like "gnargoyle."

Judith B. Herman is a linguist and writes the Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper blog at http://www.wordsnooper.com

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