Skip to main content

A bromance of 'Sharknado' and 'cronut'

By Lee Siegel, Special to CNN
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lee Siegel: It seems that a new portmanteau -- a hybrid word -- pops up every hour
  • Siegel: Words like "cronut" and "Sharknado" delight and dazzle us in their newness
  • He says familiar words are being reshuffled as our modern life quickens in its pace
  • Siegel: New hybrid words are emblematic of our culture -- a melting pot where things blend

Editor's note: Lee Siegel is author of, most recently, "Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly."

(CNN) -- Help me out. What's a word for feeling the pressure of a deadline but also pleasure in meeting it? I've got it -- plessure.

Nowadays, it seems that a new portmanteau -- a word that is a combination of two words -- pops up every hour or so.

You might have just met a frenemy for brunch -- a hybrid word going back decades -- where the two of you shared a cronut before distracting each other with a heated discussion of "Sharknado." Who knows? The discovery that you both experience spasms of affluenza could make for the beginning of a wonderful bromance.

Chillax, I'm not about to go on a curmudgeonly rant denouncing hybrid words. On the contrary, perhaps they herald a new phase in American verbal creativity.

Invented by French chef Dominique Ansel earlier this year, "cronuts" are a cross between croissants and doughnuts. In New York City, the pastry debuted in Ansel's Soho shop to big crowds. They were such a hit that a black market on Craigslist sprang up where one cronut can fetch as much as $40.

'Sharknado' causes Twitter twister

"Sharknado" is a SyFy TV movie about -- you guessed it -- a tornado that tosses man-eating sharks out of the sea onto land. The hashtag #Sharknado took Twitter by storm. Apparently, the word inspired the movie.

Is there a trend in the air? Familiar words are being reshuffled and transformed into dazzling new things.

We throw old words into new configurations in a rush to keep up with our faster pace of life, the same way we throw on the clothes nearest to us, no matter how mismatched, if we have to rush out of the house.

Maybe it has something to do with technology. The mind reels as it tries to keep up with all the scintillating gadgets and toys. BlackBerry and PCs seem so yesterday. Even IMs feel old compared to some of the newer chat programs. And now we have an explosion of apps where word play is child's play. Move over, Instagram and Pandora; make way for Snapchat, WhatsApp and NearMe.

You have to wonder if there isn't a little bit of nostalgia in the portmanteau craze. It's as if we are saying to all the changes: "Hold on! Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!" (Don't be a ... throwbaby?)

Hybrid words come in many flavors. Some have an undertone of irony, and even cynicism, to them: anticipointment, Frankenfood, craptacular.

Twenty years ago, genetically modified food was the stuff of science fiction; hence Frankenfood was born.

The concepts behind "craptacular" and "anticipointment" -- the disappointment we feel after the anticipation aroused by hype has been deflated by reality -- are the product of jaded intelligences that see through the commercial artifice around them.

There is something almost decadent, and a little bit Roman, about our rising tide of portmanteaus. In the 17th century, a concept like "frenemy" might have been coined by some caustic French writer with an epigrammatic wit. You might even say that a hybrid is an epigram manque.

But, then, we are in a cultural phase now that seems more conceptual and visual. Words like "cronuts" or "Sharknado" conjure up hard-to-forget images. But will people remember them in 100 years? It depends on whether the words' meanings will still resonate with people. "Sharknado" will probably go the way of the movie it inspired, and cronut seems particularly well suited to NYC in 2013. But who knows? Cronuts could stay with us as long we eat them.

Some words like metrosexual or screenager say a lot about the way we live. We've all felt at one time or another as if we've fallen through the looking glass into some strange new world, where what was familiar to us even five years ago has been turned on its head.

It was, after all, Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty who first coined the word "portmanteau" and defined it: "two meanings packed up into one word."

Unlike Mr. Dumpty, however, we are kept together by our hybrid words, or at least enabled to rearrange the broken pieces of our familiar experience into something we understand. Maybe the best thing about them is that, with their fusion of disparate words and ideas, they break down any notion of cultural purity.

In the end, they capture the most humane promise of American life: the only way through is together.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lee Siegel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT