Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Dr. Goodword’s Comment on Paris Hilton

paris hiltonMaureen’s twin, Colleen Walsh dropped a line today with this comment:
In today’s news about Paris Hilton being sentenced to jail there was a new word that I have never heard before. Is it a word or a newsman made-up word. He used the word frenemy to describe one of her friends that really is her enemy.”

“Could you explain the origin of hoosegow, which is another name for jail. It looks like Paris will have plenty of time on her hands. I suggest you send her a dictionary so she can improve her language skills while she is incarcerated.”

Well, Maureen, frenemy was originally not a real word but a ‘nonce’ word, a word someone made up on the spot for one-time use only. Because it was useful it stuck around and probably is a real English word. If you are someone’s enemy by definition you cannot be their friend so what the utterer of this word meant was too complicated to get into a single word (fake friend, fair weather friend, etc.) All these phrases are still around, too, but enough people know frenemy now that it has earned a place in the English vocabulary.

The creator of this word simply smushed together the two words that have the two (of the several) meanings he or she wished to express. Smushed words are called ‘blends’ and they only appear in English and only since around the 50s (motel, smog, etc.) Blends are a sort of halfway abbreviation, an abbreviation with too few letters removed. At best it is a rather border-line means of creating new words but many of these do stick so we have to put up with them.

As for hoosegow, just read our Good Word for March 6, 2006 by clicking ‘Good Word’.

8 Responses to “Dr. Goodword’s Comment on Paris Hilton”

  1. Timothy Knox Says:

    Perhaps we just travel in different circles, but I heard the word “frenemy” some years ago. It was used then to indicate someone who had aspects of being both friend, and enemy, simultaneously. For example, you might characterise Google as a frenemy to Amazon, because they simultaneously send searchers to Amazon, show ads from Amazon, and also host Froogle. Meanwhile, Amazon wants to be found on Google searches, but hasn’t always used Google as their web-search engine.

    So while it may still be a nonce word, if my memory serves, it has a bit longer history than that (however, I can only offer anecdotal support for this. Sorry!).

  2. Alec Says:

    Have to disagree with you on blends. They’ve been around for as long as languages and are likely to stick. Whilst some words are just fads – perhaps ‘frenemy’ for example – some words have stuck with us and one would be pushed to find a suitable replacement.

    ‘Motel’, for example, is a short word to identify a certain type of hotel. It takes no more effort to say/write than ‘hotel’ but carries greater information about the type of hotel in question.

    ‘Smog’ and ‘motel’ are fairly obvious examples, but some portmanteaux we take for granted because of their necessity:

    alphabet = alpha + beta
    cyborg = cybernetic + organism
    Malaysia = Malaya + Singapore
    Internet = international + interglobal + interchanged + network

    Portmanteaux are never going to go away and I for one wouldn’t want them to either. Whilst some are ugly (or ‘fugly’ if you prefer) they are undoubtedly useful.

  3. James Clark Says:

    Blend words date back earlier than the 1950s. Lewis Carroll coined examples in the 1870s; ‘Motel’, one of the words you mention, dates from the 1920s according to the OED. I am sure there are other earlier examples!

  4. rbeard Says:

    1870s are nothing in linguistic time. We have written examples of language going back to the 4th millennium BCE. The 19th century is modern history.

    In fact, it was probably Lewis Carroll who started the trend. It is true he invented a few but they were nonce words not intended for common usage. “Alphabet(a)” isn’t quite a blend since the end of “beta” and beginning of “alpha” are intact.

    I would love to hear a few from other languages in the 19th or 20th century.

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  6. Marisa Says:

    The first time I read about frenemies was in an article from 1977 by author Jessica Mitford, in refernece to a little girl who was a frenemy of her sister back in the 20’s.

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