Two Words “Packed” Together Into One … Portmanteau

In mid-December I read a blog post at Word Nerdery called “My Portmanteau is Packed; I’m Ready to Go“.  I always enjoy reading Ann Whiting’s posts.  To me it is like finding out your favorite author has written another chapter!  I get comfortable and ready to savor what I’m about to read because I know it will sometimes tickle me, sometimes stump me, but always fascinate me!

Portmanteau words are something I’ve been intending to have my students explore, so I was especially interested in this post.  My heart was saddened however, when I read what the inspiration was for this look into portmanteau words.  Simply put, the  word was smog.  And it seems there was a lot of it in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.  Land being cleared for farming and palm oil plantations was leaving the air filled with noxious pollution.  Without minimizing the seriousness of the situation she was surrounded by, Ann invited her readers to take a closer look at the word <smog>.

After finishing the post (and I encourage you to visit her blog and do the same), I was excited to see what my students would do with this topic.  Over the next few days, as students came to me ready for a new orthographic investigation, I asked them to find out what they could about portmanteau words.  First they were to find out what they were.  Second they were to make a list of some of their favorites.  It didn’t take long before they were huddled around computers, sharing their discoveries and often laughing at the strange images being brought to mind.  Most were especially delighted by the imaginative blends that involved animals.

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What fun!  We went to the Gallery at Real Spelling and viewed the film on Blend Words (Portmanteau).  We found out that there were three different ways to create a portmanteau.  They can be juxtapositional, overlapping, or nested.  We started to recognize some of those types in the examples we found.

Since we knew that Lewis Carroll was the one who started calling blend words “portmanteau words”, we decided to look at his famous poem to see which portmanteau words we could spot.  What a treat! “Callooh! Callay!”   Everyone looked a copy of the poem over on their own.  Then I shared a youtube video I had found in which a very talented 10 year old recites this famous poem.

We talked a bit about how his recitation brought the poem (which seemed to be full of strange words that nobody knew) to life!  Suddenly there was a story here!  It still wasn’t perfectly clear, but the gist of it was!  Then we compared that to Johnny Depp’s partial sharing of the poem.

The consensus was that this version was a bit creepier, yet we felt the pull of wanting to hear more.

We found the following portmanteau words:
slithy, which is a combination of slimy and lithe     mimsy, which is a combination of miserable and flimsy
galumphing, which is a combination of gallop and triumphing
chortle, which is a combination of chuckle and snort

We played with the words of “The Jabberwocky” for days.  We analyzed the grammar in some of the sentences.  Here is a sample of that.  I realized as I watched it back that the apostrophe in (‘Twas) was put in the wrong place.  If it represents the missing letter, it needs to be before the letter <T>.  The other thing I found out was Lewis Carroll may have intended the word ‘brillig’ to mean a certain time of day.  If that is true, then it would be a noun and not an adjective.  But it would still be a subject complement.

The students surprised themselves by being able to identify some grammatical structure to this sentence, which at first had only felt full of strange foreign words.  Of course, we could make grammatical sense of this sentence because in English, it is the order of the words that helps signal relationships between the words in the sentence.  We know that we expect to find adjectives before nouns.  We know that we expect to find articles before nouns.  We know the predictable parts of speech to look for following a preposition.  And here is where I neatly planted a seed.  Latin wasn’t like that.  Word order was not that important.  The Romans knew whether a word was a subject or an object by its suffix, and not by whether it was in front of or behind the predicate.

We finish with this recitation of The Jabberwocky.  We thank Lewis Carroll, Word Nerdery and Real Spelling because these days we quote the Jabberwocky when it suits us, and we blurt out portmanteaus that we are inventing on the spot!  We are changed!

Phenomenal Phonesthemes!

When I first heard about phonesthemes, I was fascinated.  What? Really? How cool!  They were simple, everyday words that have been part of my living breathing vocabulary most of my life, and yet here was a new way to think about them!

J.R. Firth, an English linguist, first coined the term in 1930 and wrote about it in his book Speech.  He defined a phonestheme as a particular sound or sound sequence that suggests a certain meaning.  The word itself is derived from Greek phone “sound” and aisthema “perception”.  A phonestheme can be found initial, medial or final in a word.  My students recently investigated and made collections of phonesthemes that were found either initially or final in words.

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There was a list of words that begin with <wr> and have to do with twisting or turning (wrench, wrestle, wreath).  There was a collection of words that begin with <sn> that have to do with either the nose or the mouth (snore, sneeze, snout).  There was a collection of words that end with <ack> that have to do with abrupt contact (whack, smack, crack).  In all we collected words to represent 9 different phonesthemes.

Then we paused and reflected on the collaborative results.  Time to have some fun.  Time to play with our phonesthemes!  Students were asked to look carefully at all the lists and then to choose a particular phonestheme.  Keeping that particular phonestheme in mind, the challenge was to write a poem using as many words with that same phonestheme as possible.

The poems have been delightful to read!  And as I have been doing so, I’ve been realizing how important it is for students to have playtime like this.  Even though the words on each list share a sense of meaning, they are definitely not sharing an exact meaning!  The students were able to explore those sometimes subtle differences and practice using the words in a way that intrigued them and delighted them.  So many times we talk to students about “word choice”, but how often do they have the opportunity to play with the way a set of words feel in their mouths or with the poetic feel and flow of the way words sound when used in a particular sequence?

As you watch the video below, watch the expressions on the faces of these students.  Most can’t keep the smile from surfacing.  This has been such an enjoyable investigation.  And has resulted in poems that range from funky and fun to phenomenal!  We love phonesthemes!