- 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
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" 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.
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