Brexit: A Political Portmanteau

I won’t spend too much time on my thoughts about the UK’s referendum. I’ll just say I’m sad. Sad because I have an idealistic belief in nations working together for their mutual benefit. Because I think that the British people who’ve suffered and been ignored in recent years were lied to by the rich and powerful into voting against their own interests.

So tonight I’ll try not to think too much about what’s going to happen to the UK, to the EU, and to me (I’d better remember to bring my passport if I want to drive to Belfast!)

Instead, I want to look at that word: Brexit. Ugly thing, isn’t it. That tacky x in the middle. And it sounds terrible. Too short and abrupt. Harsh.

It’s an example of a portmanteau: a type of compound noun formed by “squashing” two words together. Normally with a compound noun, the words that are joined together remain whole. But with a portmanteau, one or both words lose some letters from their beginning or end. So Britain + exit = Brexit. Smog (smoke and fog) and motel (motor and hotel) are two of the most common examples.

Portmanteaus have been used for a long time to describe crossbreed animals. A male tiger and a female lion can produce a tigon, while a female tiger and a male lion might produce a liger. In the last decade or two, the tabloid press have latched on to portmanteaus to refer to celebrity couples, such as Bennifer and Brangelina. Probably to save space when writing headlines.

The word has an interesting history. As you might guess, it’s originally from the French language. It comes from the verbs porter (carry or wear, but carry in this case), and manteau (cloak). Originally, the word referred to a suitcase that opened into two equal sections. It appears that the word was originally used in its linguistic sense by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass (1871) with Humpty Dumpty describing his practice of combining words like miserable and flimsy into mimsy thus:

You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.

It’s not surprising that a writer with a playful and cheeky sense of language like Lewis Carroll might have been the first to use the word in this sense. I’ve never really been able to take portmanteaus seriously. I think it just seems like an overly-obvious and simple way to create a word, especially if it’s really clear what the two original words are.

Now though, I think I’ll be taking them a lot more seriously.

21 thoughts on “Brexit: A Political Portmanteau

  1. I first encountered the word Brexit (and also Grexit) about a year ago in a German-language magazine. Figured out what it meant, but didn’t initially realize that it was an English loanword…good thing though, since the German equivalent would be an extremely long compound noun, or a couple of them (though I can’t remember what now).

    If anything can be said about the portmanteau, it’s that it promotes language efficiency.

    Liked by 1 person

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