• portmanteau •
Pronunciation: port-mên-to • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A suitcase that opens into two compartments connected at the bottom by a hinge. 2. (Language) A blend, two words or morphemes that have been smushed together, as smog is a portmanteau word made up of smoke and fog.
Notes: This word is used so infrequently that neither the spelling nor pronunciation has changed since it was borrowed in the 16th century. Look out for the French accent on the last syllable. In fact, watch the spelling of that syllable, too: in French it takes three vowels, [eau] to express [o]. We do use the English plural, portmanteaus.
In Play: This is such a rare substitute for suitcase that it is used for a wide variety of valises and carrying cases: "The grandchildren always exhibited a great curiosity about what Grandpa would pull out of his portmanteau when he visited." When it comes to words, however, it is the lay term for what linguists (including me) call "blends", such as motel (motor + hotel), chortle (chuckle + snort), chingo (chat + lingo), and a recent Good Word, IMglish (IM + English). Contrary to popular belief, creating new portmanteaus is a relatively rare means of adding vocabulary to English because it is so unpredictable.
Word History: Today's word is one we traced directly from French portemanteau, a compound based on porter "to carry" + manteau "cloak, mantle, sleeveless coat". (The French let us have it; they now use valise instead of portmanteau.) In fact, manteau is the Modern French pronunciation of Old French mantel, which English also borrowed as mantle, preserving the original pronunciation. Old French inherited mantel from Latin mantellum "cloth, napkin, mantle". Where the Latin word came from is anyone's guess, though the origin is probably Celtic. (Today we thank Sally Capotosto for unpacking this fascinating word and suggesting we use it.)