I got a nice surprise from my son, Colin, yesterday: an e-mail with some new words! (He also had a list of things he would like for Christmas in that e-mail, but I didn’t pay much attention to that.) “Portmanteau” was on his word list. Thanks, Colin!
In Britain, a suitcase, trunk or bag used for traveling might be called a “portmanteau,” especially if it is made of leather and opens into two halves the way hard-sided American luggage does. It is pronounced “port-man-TOE” and the plural is portmanteaux or portmanteaus. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the English word, “port,” which we all know as a place where ships load and unload; and the lesser known French word, “manteau,” which means cloak.
Linguists use portmanteau in a different way. They call words that are made by blending parts of other words, “portmanteau words.” It seems that people who spend their days studying words and languages think that combining parts of two or more words into one word is a little like cramming the contents of two sides of a suitcase together when it is jammed shut. I like that analogy.
I have mentioned some portmanteau words in previous blog posts, without knowing that’s what they were: chortle, TomKat and Brangelina. I don’t think the word portmanteau qualifies as a portmanteau word, because, if I am right about its origin, portmanteau combines all, not part, of two words, making it a compound word, not a portmanteau word. Whew!
Sometimes learning a new word leads to another new word. Portmanteau led me to “dandle,” which is a combination of the words dance and handle, meaning to pet or pamper. It is often used to describe the way adults move a baby or child lightly up and down on their knee or in their arms. I have bounced a lot of babies, but I never knew I was dandling them.
Dandle is a great portmanteau word because it combines the joy and music and rhythm of dance with the love and concern and spoiling implicit in careful handling. Like any good word, dandle creates a word-picture. In my mind’s eye, I can see Grampa T., who is no longer with us, dandling my younger daughter on his knee, boisterously chanting, “This is the way the little girls ride.” This tender word-picture, of a time when Somer was so small and Grampa T. was so full of life, brings a tear to my eyes.