10 Weird Words: Portmanteaus

Portmanteau (n.) /pɔːɹtˈmæntoʊ/ A type of word whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct words or morphemes. It was originally defined as a large suitcase that opened into two separate parts.

Portmanteaus differ from compound words, which you might remember from elementary school: compound words join two complete words without losing any letters (e.g. “handshake”), while portmanteaus drop letters to blend the roots together (e.g. “smog” and celebrity couple names). Portmanteaus can also have more than two roots, as in TriBeCa.



Wario is Mario’s… brother? No, that’s Luigi. Wait so why do they look alike?

I used to think Wario was just an example of lazy naming for the evil counterpart to our protagonist, Mario. (Seriously, are they cousins or something?) And, well, he is, but I guess a little bit less than I thought. The Japanese word warui (悪い) actually means “bad,” and the similarity to Mario’s name was just too perfect to ignore.

One of the directors of the first game featuring Wario came up with the name and presented it to his co-director, expecting some kind of backlash. To his surprise, his co-director loved it, particularly the idea of flipping the “M” on Mario’s iconic hat to a “W,” following along with the design theme that conveyed their opposite natures (i.e., complementary colors, jagged mustache, muscular build).

Waluigi, though… I don’t know, that one’s still pretty lazy.



Lucy’s classic sketch ripping on vitamins was even better satire than you thought. The word was first coined as “vitamine” in 1912 by a biochemist at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine using the words “vital” and “amine,” neither of which actually describes vitamins. He threw in the chemistry term “amine” because some of these vitamines kind of seemed like they might prevent dietary-deficiency diseases, and maybe those were amines?

Anyway, he happened to be right about exactly one of them (thiamine) but the scientists at Lister thought people might get mad at them for, y’know, lying about what the rest of them actually did (which ranges from “nothing” to “fatality”). The “-in” ending was deemed acceptable because it was used for “neutral substances of undefined composition” – notice that “thiamine” got to keep its name.

So in 1920, the same year that this change was made, they introduced the terms Vitamin A, B, C, etc., starting a trend that would continue with us giving our kids Flinstones vitamins to this day.



I’m about to defend the etymology of “irregardless” even as I’m prompted by a red squiggly line to delete the linguistic abomination, but any linguist reading this knows the dangers of prescriptivism so here we go. It’s a portmanteau of “irrespective” and “regardless,” often used in place of the latter. It’s been around since the 19th century and the dictionary even has an entry for it, though it does mark it with the dreaded “nonstandard” designation.

Unlike other historically nonstandard words that weaseled their way into our accepted lexicon, “irregardless” never made the cut and has been hated since Day One. Go ahead and check out the Online Etymology Dictionary’s feelings on the matter:

An erroneous word that means the opposite of what it is used to express.

That’s like the dictionary version of flipping the bird.



An electric taxicab that was used in New York around 1900

Taxicabs were ubiquitous, if by different names, by 1907 when a Londoner coined this term and was promptly ripped off by an ambitious New Yorker for his own company, which also killed the progress of electric taxis like the one pictured above. “Taximeter,” the origin of “taxi,” comes from German taxameter, literally “charge reader.” Taxa- comes from the same Latin root as our word “tax.” “Cabriolet,” the origin of “cab,” is a horse-drawn carriage from Latin capreolus, which meant “wild goat” (it took a few turns before getting to the carriage thing). You might recognize capreolus for its relationship to the Spanish chupacabra, literally “goat-sucker,” from its legendary tendency to drink (“suck”) the blood of goats.


Japanese video game developers love portmanteaus, apparently. This one means “Pocket Monster,” but isn’t actually a portmanteau of the English words – it just kind of worked out that way. In Japanese, it’s short for poketto monsutā (ポケットモンスタ), which itself is from the English words “pocket” and, well, “monster.”



A formation of Royal Air Force B-17s uses cloud coverage to its advantage during the Bombing of Bremen (13 Nov 1843)

“Wuss” is 1960s slang for a coward, but its etymology is a point of contention. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives two explanations: one is a bastardization of “pussy,” as in the slang for female genitalia, which implies a lack of bravery or masculinity in men.

The other explanation is that it comes from the unrelated sense of having characteristics of a pussycat. This supports the theory that it’s a portmanteau of “pussy-wussy,” itself descended from British military slang in World War II. You might remember the Arrested Development gag about this confusion:

The English did indeed use this term differently than the more crass Americans, with the British Royal Air Force coming up with “playing pussy” as slang for “taking advantage of cloud cover, jumping from cloud to cloud to shadow a potential victim or avoid recognition,” like a stealthy cat. As a result, the two unrelated meanings of “pussy” converged to uniformly convey a sense of cowardice, lending itself to the creation of “wuss.”



…and any other time you see “bit” in technospeak (bonus portmanteau). It comes from “binary digit,” though the fact that it sounded like an existing word was not lost on its originators: “bits of information” had referred to the holes on punch cards that computers could read as early as the 1930s. There is another theory that it’s an acronym of “binary information digit” from a 1947 memo at Bell Labs, Alexander Bell’s telephone company that would be credited with the invention of transistors, another portmanteau.



Sony came out with a transistor radio in the 1950s, its first product with the new brand name. It was almost called TTK, the initials of their first company name, but there was already a Japanese railroad company with that name, and their next idea was already shared by an American company. They chose Sony as a portmanteau of sonus, the Latin word that gives us “sonic” and “sound,” and “sonny,” common American slang at the time for “a young man.” In Japan, “sonny boys” specifically referred to smart, young men who dressed presentably.



A historical map showing the region that would later unify to become Tanzania, c. 1890

The country of Tanzania was founded when two African countries, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, unified in 1964 after winning their independence from colonial forces. Tanganyika comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “to sail the wilderness,” while Zanzibar was named after the native people, zengi, and the word for coast, barr.

The use of portmanteau to blend the two names together is just one example of the government’s plan to create a unified identity for the young country. As a result, Tanzania has some of the fewest ethnic divisions of any African country and maintains considerably more political stability than its neighboring countries. This is all despite over 130 languages being spoken there – fantastic evidence against those who say diversity weakens national stability.



Jesse Owens wearing the first Adidas spikes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

That’s right, it’s not an acronym for All Day I Dream About Sports (or anything else you heard in 4th grade). It’s actually a portmanteau of the company founder’s name, Adolf “Adi” Dassler. If that’s kind of anticlimactic, the story of how this guy made it big makes up for it. For our last entry, we’re going on a little history adventure to find out how the well-known brand name’s history is pretty nuts and why his brother’s company, which is also still around, just couldn’t pull off the portmanteau look.

After returning home from fighting in World War I, Adi Dassler began making athletic shoes in his mother’s laundry room and eventually got his brother, Rudolf, to help. They peddled stationary bicycles for power when the electricity went out, which it often did in their little German town. With his adept skills and innovative nature, Adi became instrumental in the invention of spiked running shoes, transitioning them from heavy metal to canvas and rubber.

In 1936, as Adolf Hitler was meticulously planning his Olympics, the spectacle of which he hoped would prove the superiority of the Aryan race on an international stage, the German soldier Adi pitched his new hand-made spikes to an African-American athlete. Jesse Owens accepted his offer.

Hitler was livid at the prospect of a black man’s presence at his nationalist spectacle and furiously hoped that Owens would be summarily beaten by paler men – one can only imagine his reaction to his own countrymen outfitting the track star with athletic footwear’s newest technology. Jesse Owens went on to win 4 gold medals in the Berlin Olympics that year, going down in history as a civil rights icon while simultaneously making the Dassler brothers a raging success overnight. They sold over 200,000 pairs of athletic shoes every year after that up until World War II.

Both brothers were conscripted into the Wehrmacht Army for World War II, during which Rudolf was detained by the Gestapo for Absence Without Leave. For some reason, they released him on their way to dump him at the Dachau concentration camp, only for US troops to capture him as a POW during his escape. Rudolf was convinced that Adi, who had never been as ardent a supporter of the Nazis as his brother, was the one who told the Americans that Rudolf was a member of the SS. As you might expect, this irrevocably damaged their relationship, so when Rudolf was released, he moved across the river and the brothers founded separate companies.

Adi, as we know, found great success with the portmanteau of his name. Rudolf tried the same trick that had worked so well for his brother, calling his new company “Ruda.” No one liked it and he was talked into naming it Puma instead.

10 Weird Words: Surprising Roots

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