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Through the Blender

The blend is a type of word formation which has become popular in English this century and which now accounts for a significant proportion of new words, particularly those deriving from commercial trade names or advertising, those which have a technical or scientific link, or which are meant facetiously.

A blend is any word which is formed by fusing together elements from two other words and whose meaning shares or combines the meanings of the source words. The elements are normally the beginning of one and the end of the other. An example is Oxbridge, which is formed by putting together the first part of Oxford and the last part of Cambridge to form a new inclusive term for both universities (Camford also exists, but it’s much less common). An older term for the result of this technique is portmanteau word, which was coined by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1872 to explain some of the words he made up in the nonsense poem Jabberwocky: “Well ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ ... you see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word”. This term is much less comprehensible to us now that the literal sense of portmanteau has gone out of use. It derives from the French term for a large stiff carrying case for clothes, which is hinged in the middle so that it falls open into two halves. Though many of Carroll’s inventions didn’t survive, a couple have become part of the language: galumph (gallop + triumph), and chortle (chuckle + snort). His term mimsy (flimsy + miserable) already existed in the language, but his re-definition of it certainly affected the sense.

A few such terms existed before Carroll made his inspired series of inventions: anecdotage (anecdote combined with dotage to suggest a garrulous old age, first recorded in 1823); squirl (a blend of squiggle and whirl to describe a flourish, as in handwriting, from 1843); snivelization, coined by Herman Melville in 1849 from snivel and civilisation as a term for “civilisation considered derisively as a cause of anxiety or plaintiveness”; squdge (squash + pudge) dates from 1870. Some writers have suggested that there may be older examples in the language: for example, bash may be a blend of bang and smash and clash of clang and crash, but most of the candidate words are so ancient that their origins are obscure.

It is very noticeable that a fashion for such formations began in the 1890s, perhaps influenced by Carroll, though this could equally well be accounted for by other factors leading to an increased rate of word formation. As examples: electrocute (a blend of electricity and execute) first appeared in 1889; prissy (blending prim and sissy) was coined about 1895; brunch (breakfast taken nearly at lunchtime), first recorded in 1896; travelogue (travel + monologue), 1903; mingy (mean and stingy), from 1911; scientifiction (invented by Hugo Gernsback in 1916 as a blend of science and fiction, thankfully now obsolete); motel (a motor hotel, originally a trade name from 1925); sexpert (an expert on sex, 1924); sexational (sex + sensational, 1925); ambisextrous (a coinage from ambidextrous and sex dating from 1929 which has achieved a modest continuing circulation); Jacobethan (Jacobean + Elizabethan, invented by John Betjeman in 1933); guesstimate (guess + estimate, dating from 1936); sexploitation (the exploitation of sex in films, first used about 1942 and which was the model for blaxploitation in the early seventies).

The modern usage of blend as a technical term among dictionary makers is quite strict and many words which might be thought to be blends, such as keypad, paintball or townhouse, are instead regarded as compounds because the elements being put together are words in their own right. Terms like megastore or hypertext are also called compounds, because they are combinations of free-standing words with prefixes or suffixes. So faction is a blend, because it combines parts of the words fact and fiction into one, but factoid, “a spurious or questionable fact”, is not a blend but a compound because the second element is a suffix and does not derive from some word which happens to end in –oid. Some other formations — examples are kidvid and nicad — are frequently called clipped compounds rather than blends because the combining elements both come from the beginnings of words (kid + video, nickel + cadmium), rather than the beginning of one and the end of another.

The terminology is complicated by a subsidiary process in which blends can give rise to new prefixes and suffixes which then affect the classification of later creations. An early example is the word motorcade, formed as a blend of motor and cavalcade, which created a new suffix –cade that has been used in words like aerocade, aquacade and even camelcade and tractorcade. More recent examples of such formations are taken to be compounds with this suffix, rather than blends with cavalcade. Similarly, the prefix info– deriving from information has become heavily used in terms such as infoglut, infobahn, infodump and infonaut; it is difficult to argue that all these are blends. Other examples are cyber– (created from cybernetics, see the article Cyberplague), –thon (from marathon, used first in telethon and now in nonce-words like preachathon, operathon and stripperthon); –gate (from Watergate, see Newspapergate); mini–, maxi– and others.

A number of blends describe a language which has been heavily influenced by English: Franglais was an early example (French which has become corrupted by the influx of English words such as le weekend), Spanglish is Latin American Spanish containing English expressions like el gasfitter; Japlish is Japanese in which English words such as salaryman are imported. Other examples are Swedlish, Anglicaans, Wenglish (Welsh + English), mockney, a form of mock Cockney employed particularly by some British pop stars, and Texican (Texas plus Mexican). In another aspect, we have slanguage, a blend of slang and language.

Many blends have been created in recent years as names for new forms of exercise regimes, many of them trade names: Aquarobics, Callanetics (the first name of Callan Pinckney blended with athletics, probably after the model of callisthenics), Jazzercise (jazz + exercise), aquacise, dancercise, sexercise, and slimnastics. Among sports we have terms like parascending (parachute + ascending) and surfari, and nonce adjectives such as sportsational or swimsational which blend words with the last element of sensational.

The media, advertising and show business have been responsible for an especially large crop: advertorial (an advertisement written as though it were an editorial); docutainment (a documentary written as entertainment, with variable felicity concerning actual events), which is also known as a dramadoc, from dramatised documentary, though this is a clipped compound, not a blend); an infomercial is a television commercial in the form of an information announcement; infotainment is a blend, in reality as well as etymology, of information and entertainment; a magalogue is a cross between a magazine and a catalogue; a televangelist is a television evangelist. From the entertainment field we have animatronics (a blend of animated and electronics), camcorder (camera + recorder), rockumentary (a rock documentary) and, for a while in Britain, squarial (a square aerial, used to receive satellite television signals). There have been a number of facetitious blends based on the long-standing litterati: the glitterati are glittering show-biz stars; the soccerati are soccer stars and their celebrity supporters; the digerati are the computing elite leading the information technology revolution; the ligerati is the group which turns up at all the best parties without going through the formality of being invited (based on lig, a dialect term meaning “to idle or lie about” which became fashionable in British media circles in the eighties in the sense of “freeload” or “gatecrash”) — again, it can be argued that –ati has turned into a plural suffix and that recent coinages should be called compounds rather than blends.

Politics and the economy have a fair representation in the list. We have Clintonomics, Reaganomics, and Rogernomics which all combine the name of a political figure with the word economics. In similar vein are stagflation, a near-disastrous combination of stagnation and inflation, and slumpflation (slump + inflation). Politics also gave Britain the humorous formation beerage for ennobled leaders of the drinks trade (beer + peerage), but it never really caught on. The US has punning blends like Californicate.

Science and technology has been responsible for large numbers of new blends. Some well-established ones are transistor (transfer + resistor), Chunnel (Channel + tunnel), smog (smoke + fog); nucleonics (nucleon + electronics), and transputer (transistor + computer). However, there is a set of new scientific words which fall somewhere in the same territory as blends but which also could also be said to look like extended abbreviations or acronyms. An excellent example is amphetamine, which comes from its full chemical name of alpha methyl phenyl ethyl amine. Such creative mangling of names is now common when making up the vast number of trade and generic names needed for new drugs: zidovudine, the generic name of the AIDS drug AZT, is formed from azidodeoxythymidine with the letters vu inserted for no obvious reason; ranitidine, used to treat stomach ulcers and better known by its trade name Zantac, is furan + nitro + –itidine. There doesn’t seem to be a good name in the dictionary business for this type of formation. Tom McArthur has called them quasi-blends in The Oxford Companion to the English Language and this seems as good a term as any.

I’ve only touched on a very few examples of a long list of blends in modern English. What is certain is that the use of blending techniques to create new terms is now an essential part of the toolkit of any modern wordsmith.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Nov. 1996

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Last modified: 23 November 1996.