LINGUIST List 11.1378

Wed Jun 21 2000

Sum: Earliest Lexical Blending

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  • Suzanne Kemmer, Earliest Lexical Blending

    Message 1: Earliest Lexical Blending

    Date: Tue, 20 Jun 2000 23:26:37 +0200
    From: Suzanne Kemmer <>
    Subject: Earliest Lexical Blending

    For Query: Linguist 11.1309

    I got a number of great responses to my query about early examples of lexical blending in English. Thanks to June Luchjenbroers, Mark Mandel, Andrew McCrum, H. Mooney, Geoff Nunberg, Ingrid Piller, Michael Quinion, Katherine Rossner, Fred Shapiro, Jess Tauber, and Larry Trask. A number of people mentioned phonaesthetic blends (like twirl from twist and swirl ), of which there are apparent examples going back at least to Middle English. A local colleague, Martin Haspelmath, reminded me about Hermann Paul's Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte (a book which contains reference to just about everything in language, it turns out). Paul treats blends under the rubric of Contamination, defined as (my rough translation): "the process by which two synonyms or otherwise related forms of expression come simultaneously into consciousness, such that neither of them alone is activated ('zur Geltung kommt'), but a new form arises in which elements of the one mix together with elements of the other (p.160). He proceeds to cite many examples from Indo-European languages, including Latin, Old and Middle High German, and a few from Old and Middle English. For those interested in more detail, below the references are the responses I got that contained specific examples of early blends.

    Summary of References:

    Adams, Valerie. 1973. An Introduction to Modern English Word-Formation . London: Longman, Chapters 11 and 12 Marchand, Hans. 1957. Phonetic symbolism in English word formation. Part I pp.146-168 Indogermanische Forschungen Vol. 63? Marchand, Hans. 1958- Part II pp. 256-277, Vol. 64 Nunberg, Geoff. 1999. Portmanteau Words. Fresh Air radio broadcast, National Public Radio. October 10, 1999. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Paul, Hermann. 1920. Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte. 6th edition. Tuebingen: Niemeyer. (Photoreproduced 1960 byWissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt.) Pound, Louise. 1914. _Blends: Their Relation to English Word-Formation_. (Anglistische Forschungen 42.) Heidelberg. Quinion, Michael. 1999. Through the Blender: New Words, Portmanteau Style.

    Responses with Data: - ---------------------------- From: "andrew mccrum" <>

    Lexical blending is common in sound symbolic or phonosemantic words. It is probably as old as the English language. A recent example is the word slimsy, first recorded in 1845, meaning a building of frail and flimsy construction. The OED suggests this is a blend of slim and flimsy. Here, the sound symbolic categories sl- 'narrow, thin' as in slit, slither, slim, slice and 'frail' as in whimsy, flimsy are combined. Sound symbolic categories are used in blends because meaning is salient for the coiner and predictable or restricted to certain categories for the hearer. Blends were certainly common during the neologistically vibrant English renaissance period, 16c-17c, where you can find: crash a blend of craze and crash, twirl a blend of swirl and twist/twine and twiddle a blend of twirl and fiddle (Onions, Charles, T, (1966), The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology).

    I don't know if blending appears in the lexis any earlier. Before this time compounding as in slotter 'mire' + bug 'gremlin' ? > slotterbug 1440 'very dirty person' and suffixation slug(g)- + suffixial -ard > sluggard 1398 are the chief sound symbolic word formation processes, for insulting epithets at least. Also, the late 19c intellectual climate wasn't favourable towards unorthodox word formation processes so perhaps you might find any Old English sound symbolic blends which exist recategorised as compounds by English language etymologists Toller and Bosworth and Skeat. Andrew McCrum

    - ------------------ From: (Larry Trask)

    See Chapters 11 and 12 of Valerie Adams (1973), An Introduction to Modern English Word-Formation, London: Longman.

    Adams cites a number of early blends, among them the following, many of them recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (which does not recognize blending as a specific type of word-formation):

    squirl (squiggle + twirl or whirl) 'a flourish or twirl in handwriting' -- 1843 flimmer (possibly flicker + glimmer) 'burn unsteadily' -- 1880 scribaceous (possibly scribe + loquacious) 'given to writing' -- 1846; Daniel Webster cablegram (cable + telegram) 'message sent by submarine cable' -- 1868 catalo (cattle + buffalo) 'offspring of a male buffalo and a domestic cow' -- 1889 squarson (squire + parson) 'parson who holds the position of squire' -- 1876 solemncholy (solemn + melancholy) 'excessively solemn' -- 1772 blatterature (blatter + literature) 'bad literature' -- ca. 1512 niniversity (ninny + university) 'university of fools' -- ca. 1590 foolosophy (fool + philosophy) 'foolish thinking' -- 1592 foolelosopher (fool + philosopher) 'idiot posing as a sage' -- 1549 knavigator (knave + navigator) 'person who claims fraudulent geographical discoveries' -- 1613 universalphabeth (universal + alphabet) 'universal alphabet' -- ca. 1670 clantastical (clandestine + fantastical) 'secret and fantastic' -- 1803 (but attributed to the 18th century) astronography (astronomy + geography) 'geography of the sky' -- 1856 wiglomeration (wig + conglomeration) 'ceremonial fuss in legal proceedings' -- 1858; Charles Dickens, Bleak House balloonacy (balloon + lunacy) 'excessive fascination with balloons' -- 1864; Daily Telegraph needcessity (need + necessity) 'necessity' -- 1818; Sir Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian shamateur (sham + amateur) 'professional sportsman pretending to be an amateur' -- 1896 boldacious (bold + audacious) 'audacious' -- 1888; dialect word recorded in the English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), 1898-1905 baffound (baffle + confound) 'bewilder' -- recorded in EDD smothercate (smother + suffocate) 'suffocate' -- recorded in EDD

    The ones listed in the EDD are genuine dialect forms, not self-conscious literary creations.

    One not mentioned by Adams:

    squirearchy (squire + hierarchy) 'landed gentry' -- 1796

    Of these, 'cablegram', 'catalo', 'squirearchy' and possibly 'shamateur' were the only ones known to me before I dipped into Adams's book.

    I didn't find any from Shakespeare, but Frank Kermode's new book on Shakespeare's language will possibly mention any that exist.

    Larry Trask COGS University of Sussex Brighton BN1 9QH UK

    - -------------------- From: "Michael Quinion" <> Organization: World Wide Words

    When I was looking into blends for the piece that is archived at < >, I found a very few pre-Carrollian examples, of which the oldest one seems to be 'ancedotage' from 1823. It is possible that 'bash' may be a blend of 'bang' and 'smash'; 'clash' might derive from 'clang' + 'crash', but it seems older blends may not be well enough recorded to make their origins certain.

    Michael Quinion World Wide Words <>

    - ---------------- From: "J. Katherine Rossner" <>

    I don't have reference dictionaries handy, but what about "glisters"? "All that glisters is not gold" (Shakespeare--the modern "all that glitters..." is a change made by W.S. Gilbert). Looks to me like a blend of "glitters" and "glistens".

    I'm pretty sure there are others, but that's the first one that springs to mind.


    - ------------------------ From: Geoffrey Nunberg <>

    There are some pre-Lewis Carrol examples of lexical blending in English -- one famous example is 'gerrymander', which dates from 1811, and was formed out of the name of Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry and 'salamander'. Others, even earlier, include 'dumfound' [sic] and 'twirl' (< twist' + 'swirl'). But I think you're right to suspect that this is chiefly a relatively recent phenomenon, probably because the blend is a trope that's been popularized by modern institutions like governments and the press and advertising. Those are what gave us pre-war words like 'agitprop' and 'comintern' and press-agent inventions like 'smog', 'motel', 'brunch'. More recently, they have led to the formation of new words like 'cineplex', 'blaxploitation', 'infotainment','dramedy', 'frappucino', and'rockumentary'; 'Medicare' and 'Reganomics'; and 'simulcast', 'netiquette', 'cybernaut', 'digerati', and so on. I did an short piece on these on the NPR program "Fresh Air," which can be found at

    - ------------------------ From: <> To: American Dialect Society <ADS-LLISTSERV.UGA.EDU> CC:

    Answering this question is a great use of the OED Online. A search there reveals such pre-Lewis Carroll coinages as Nobodaddy (William Blake, c1793, nobody + daddy) and snivelization (Herman Melville, 1849, snivel + civilization). The oldest blends noted by the OED appear to be drubly (a1340, trobly + drof), paithment (c1375, pavement + paith), wlappe (c1380, lappe + wrap), withweeed (1567, withwind + birdweed), womanlish (1579, womanish + womanly), and scraze (1703, scratch + graze).

    Fred R. Shapiro Coeditor (with Jane Garry) Associate Librarian for Public Services TRIAL AND ERROR: AN OXFORD and Lecturer in Legal Research ANTHOLOGY OF LEGAL STORIES Yale Law School Oxford University Press, 1998 e-mail: ISBN 0-19-509547-2