It may seem strange that a suitcase has become a literary device but if we break it down step by step it is not so strange!
The word started in France in the sixteenth century as the title for a “court official who carried a prince’s mantle” and was formed from the verb “porter” which is “to carry” and from “manteau” which meant “cloak” so this makes perfect sense so far right?
Very soon it came to mean a case or travelling bag like would be carried on horseback (and sometimes it was very specific about how it opened or where the hinge was but we will just call it a suitcase) so now we have gone from a person to a thing: an idea can not be far behind!
We can blame it on Lewis Carroll! He decided that since the idea of a portmanteau was to pack things together it would also be a good name for a word that packed two words together! In Through the Looking Glasshe made up his own words in Jabberwocky then had Humpty Dumpty explain them to Alice a couple of times:
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….
. ..Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).
Word people have been playing with portmanteaus – portmanteaux? Wait we have another problem! What is the plural of portmanteau?
It depends! Some people think that because it is now an English word it should follow the English custom of adding the “s” to make it plural and some think it should be spelled with an “x” to show that they are sophisticated enough to know that in French an –eau ending takes an “x” as the plural! I will confess that I like the “x” but I am not trying to convince anyone that I am sophisticated (because that would be just wrong not to mention futile) or that I know French (though I did take two years in high school but all I remember is how to ask how to get to the library and if it is not straight ahead I will not be able to understand the answer)! I just like exes (x-es? Xs? See how much trouble you can get into thinking about words).
Pop culture and fanfic has taken portmanteaus very seriously in creating names for couples like Billary (remember the Clintons? Come on it was not that long ago!) and the ever-popular Bennifer and it seems Glee fans make a team sport out of this! My favorite is the Puckleberry Finn for the love triangle of Puck, Rachel Berry, and Finn. I finally gave up on Glee but I still like the portmanteau name!
On a more academic note there has always been Benelux for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemborg which even has a flag though it is not a country! The design even won a Phrase Shift Key Award which seems to have something to do with amateur radio enthusiasts or maybe it is a joke but it is done with such a straight face I can not tell!
What made me pick Portmanteau as the Literary Device of the Day? After all it is pretty common and I wanted to do uncommon words! Well I saw an article by Simon Akam in Slate just the other day railing against Bridezillas and the popularity of “neolexic portmanteaus” which is just a fancy way of saying new words that are portmanteaus and his complaint is that they are not accurate puns since the new first halves of the words do not rhyme with the old first halves! I think he is confusing me! Portmanteaus are not puns! They can be but they do not have to be! So why complain that they are not? But complain he does!
One erudite friend of mine suggests that the current crisis in American wordplay can be traced back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and the subsequent tendency to append any scandal-related noun with the suffix -gate. Before Nixon fell, my friend suggests, “All American puns rhymed perfectly and snappily, as if the whole country were a Cole Porter musical.” While this may not be precisely accurate, it is true that in the United States puns have come in and out of favor over time.
I think he taking up the Andy Rooney mantle of curmudgeonry to complain about this! Oh, wait, that would make him a portmanteau! But only in the sixteenth century!