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A portmanteau is a literary device. It occurs when the writer joins two or more words together to create a new word.

Such a portmanteau word refers to a single concept that may not have had a word to define it previously. The new word also shares the same meaning as the original words, so when combined, the two words come together in a new way. 

One of the best-known examples is “brunch” which is a combination of “breakfast” and “lunch.” The resulting word refers to a meal in-between breakfast and lunch, maintaining the same meaning of the original words and referring to a single concept.

Portmanteau pronunciation: port-man-tow

Portmanteau word definition and examples


Definition of Portmanteau 

The word “portmanteau” comes from the French words “to carry” and “cloak.” A portmanteau is a newly created word that results from combining two other words together. It should refer to a single concept, event, job, idea, event, etc. This new word maintains the meaning of the original words, unlike a compound word which can result in an entirely new definition. There are numerous examples in the English language today, with more being created on a fairly frequent basis. For instance, combining a word with “exit,” with the most famous example being “Brexit.” 


Common Portmanteaus Word Examples

  • Fork + knife = spork 
  • Situational + comedy = sitcom 
  • Costume + play = cosplay 
  • Fan + magazine= fanzine 
  • Camera + recorder = camcorder 
  • iPod+ broadcasting= podcasting 
  • Medical+ care= medicare 
  • Parachute + troops= paratroops


Examples of Portmanteaus in Literature 

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce 

Throughout Finnegans Wake, Joyce uses a wide variety of portmanteaus. They range in impact, interest, and how much sense they make in context. Some are complicated enough that readers may not be able to figure out which words Joyce has combined and what he wants to say with them. This passage is only one of many that use new words and demonstrate the incredibly experimental style he used through the novel:

engaged in performing the elaborative antecistral ceremony of upstheres, straightaway to run off and vision her plump and plain in her natural altogether, preferring to close his blinkhard’s eyes to the ethiquethical fact that she was, after all, wearing for the space of the time being some definite articles of evolutionary clothing, inharmonious creations,

In this passage, readers are likely going to have a hard time deciphering what it is that Joyce was trying to say. This is due in part to the fact that he uses words like “ethiquethical” and “blinkhard.” The first of these, can be broke down into its parts, “ethics” and “etiquette,” revealing its meaning. The second is easier to understand as a description of how someone blinds. Some other words that readers can find throughout Joyce’s novel are “fadograph” created using “fading” and “photograph” and “sinduced” created using “sin” and “seduced.” 

Discover James Joyce’s poetry.


Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll 

Throughout this incredibly famous poem, Carroll uses numerous nonsense words, some of which later reveal themselves to be portmanteaus. The tells the story of one person’s quest to slay the Jabberwock and the incredible creatures they meet along the way. The poet uses neologisms in order to create an otherworldly, mysterious scene. Readers are forced to use their imagination in order to figure out what words like “borogroves,” “mome,” and “Jubjub” mean. One passage that does get some clarity is: 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

These are the first lines of ‘Jabberwocky,’ and to most readers likely don’t make a complete sense. But, in another publication, Through the Looking Glass, Carroll provides some more information. When Alice travels through the mirror above her fireplace she comes upon a book with the poem in it, she reads it, and like most readers, is confused by what its referencing. She is later provided with the information by Humpty Dumpty. He tells her that “brillig” refers to 4 P.M., the period of time when one starts “broiling things for dinner.” She then says: 

‘That’ll do very well,’ said Alice: ‘and “slithy”?’

Humpty Dumpty responds with: 

‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

He even references the word “portmanteau” in these lines, ensuring the reader understands what Carroll was trying to do with these examples. 

Explore Lewis Carroll’s poems. 


Portmanteaus and Compound Words

While these two literary devices seem to be the same, there is one fundamental difference that separates them. Compound words can result in an entirely new word that has a new meaning. In contrast, portmanteaus always maintain the same meaning as their original words. Usually, compound words are easier to separate into their original parts while portmanteaus can be slightly more complicated. Such is the case with those found in Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. 


Why Do Writers Use Portmanteaus? 

Writers use this literary device when they want to create a word for a singular event that is as of yet undefined by the current vocabulary. While another word might work, they want to use one that is specialized for what they’re trying to describe. Additionally, the writer might be wanting to express themselves in a new way, experiment with language, and explore the boundaries of what words can accomplish. Some portmanteaus are less serious and are created out of necessity and even humor.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
  • Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
  • Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Figurative Language: figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.


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