Culture

Society

Wordplay isn’t always fun— London

Preface

While dining in a fairly grotty café recently I discovered the word “scromlette” scrawled on the blackboard. It was “herby scromlette” to be precise, which sounds a bit like a mischievous cartoon character from a schoolboy comic. The waitress told us it was a mixture between scrambled egg and an omelette (with herbs), which my friend duly ordered. In fact it was an eggy mess with a cursory sprinkling of very old, dried herbs that lost their taste long before the word scromlette came into being. Even though I can’t stand eggs, it wasn’t the physical object that offended me as much as the word itself.

11 January 2013

While dining in a fairly grotty café recently I discovered the word “scromlette” scrawled on the blackboard. It was “herby scromlette” to be precise, which sounds a bit like a mischievous cartoon character from a schoolboy comic. The waitress told us it was a mixture between scrambled egg and an omelette (with herbs), which my friend duly ordered. In fact it was an eggy mess with a cursory sprinkling of very old, dried herbs that lost their taste long before the word scromlette came into being. Even though I can’t stand eggs, it wasn’t the physical object that offended me as much as the word itself.

It’s a portmanteau of course and on the whole I’ve always had a soft spot for them. For the uninitiated, a portmanteau is the splicing and combining of two words to create a new one – a better one. One that sounds nice and is more succinct. “Smog” is usually held up as the definitive example, being a combination of the words “smoke” and “fog” – it’s a little easier to get your head around than “turducken” – the rather vulgar poultry fest where a chicken is stuffed into a duck, which is then stuffed inside a turkey.

“Portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words “porter”, meaning to carry and “manteau”, meaning a cloak. Much as I love the mysterious elegance of the word portmanteau, I’ve never really understood how the fusion of suitcase and cloak should end up meaning what it does but we have Lewis Carroll to thank for the ascribed term. In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains the odd words in the Jabberwocky (a nonsense poem) to a bemused Alice: “Mimsy is a portmanteau of ‘miserable’ and ‘flimsy’,” and so on. But where “mimsy” is a strange and beautiful word, “scromlette” is definitely not. And while we’re still in my café, neither is “croissandwich”.

Herein lies my point – we’re all going a little portmanteau mental, or in the wrong hands that could be “portmantental”. It’s easy to point fingers at the celebrity press who gave us the likes of “Brangelina” aeons ago. The fashion industry gave birth to “manbags”, “jeggings” (jean leggings) and even “meggings” (male leggings – no thanks), only mildly preferable to “cankles” and “moobs”. The financial press weighed in with the likes of “stagflation” and “austerical”. American marketers got onboard and no word has been safe since. Everyone’s talking about “netiquette”, “webinars”, “swaptions” and “sexting” – at a time when humans are more single than ever, words are shacking up everywhere with gay abandon. “Woon” (wooden spoon) has been slower to catch on but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.

Where once the portmanteau was reserved for a few delightful words that you might stumble across every few months, like finding a banknote in a back pocket, today we have them thrown at us from all angles, regardless of sense or sound. Language is a currency, let’s spend it wisely and stop this nonsense of gimmicky two-for-one deals.

Hugo Macdonald is design editor for Monocle.

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