Mockingjay, the upcoming title that concludes Suzanne Collins's fantastic Hunger Games trilogy, is a "portmanteau" word, combining "mockingbird" and "bluejay." Unusual, but not off-putting. "Onpassing" is a newish word that's been popping up in emails in place of the usual "forwarding."


Which word puts your back up? Or upputs your back? Let's look at what's going on with our language when words mesh and meld.


Portmanteau words combine both the syllables and the meaning of two different words to create a new word. The term portmanteau for such words was coined by Lewis Carroll, whose poem "Jabberwocky," in his classic Through the Looking-Glass, is full of new coinages such as "frumious" and "slithy."


More familiarly, consider the modern coinages smog, skort, and brunch. Today, dictionaries list smog and brunch as a matter of course, but when those words first entered common usage, some traditionalists turned up their nose. Still, they so clearly filled a need and delighted the mind that they were quickly popular.


Not so onpassing! This word popped up in Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words newsletter this past week; it's been spotted repeatedly in emails in the financial world as a synonym for forwarding.


An informal survey of word-loving friends reveals almost universal disdain, if not outright repulsion, for this coinage, even though, as Quinion notes, many words are formed in the same way as onpassing. Onpassing comes from a switch in order, adding what was a verb particle, on, that usually comes after the word, to the beginning. Think of bypassing, inputting, incoming, outsourcing, and the like. Most of us are perfectly comfortable with them. But some just tend to resist the new. Look at the lede for this piece: "upputs your back" comes from "puts your back up," and doesn't it do exactly that?


Perhaps the difference between brunch and onpassing is that brunch immediately fills an unmet need in the language, to describe a new mealtime, while onpassing isn't really necessary—the word forwarding does the job just fine.


Perhaps brunch is just tasty and fun and onpassing is just email forwarding, and email forwarding is not nearly as enjoyable as brunch—or a Suzanne Collins book.


So, do you like onpassing? Why or why not? And what's your favorite portmanteau word? (Hint: mine is not spork.)




Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.


by on ‎07-28-2010 06:15 PM

Now this is something I've always done unconsciously while speaking. Cram two non similar words as one for a combined meaning. My brain just does this, to the amusement or confusion of those around me. (shrug)


by on ‎07-29-2010 11:39 AM

TB, can you give some examples?  I'm still in wonderment, how your brain works. 


I don't like onpassing...sounds like you're speaking backwards, not forwards....why not say, passingon, wait...that means you're soon to be dead, well....henceforth, forthwith...maybe you could say, passingalong.  Actually, I like forwarding the best.  I'm used to it, and I like it.


Two people that I saw post this week, in reference to reading books in a series:  It was asked if they were stand alones...they commented that these books were stand a lones.  I've never seen the word, alone, broken.  I don't think it's supposed to be, is it?

by on ‎07-29-2010 11:49 AM

That sentence I just wrote? "Two people that I saw post......" Badly worded...It sounds like the two people are stand alones...Well, come to think of it, maybe they are...

by Fricka on ‎07-29-2010 12:35 PM


I'm not particularly thrilled with the word "Onpassing," but then there are a lot of words I think are slangy and not particularyly graceful. However, on a positive note, it indicates to me that English(at least, American English) is a living language, that is sitll changing and capable of adding new words to its vocabulary. As you point out, the word "Mockingjay" that is used in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games books is a portmanteau word. I don't really have a problem with those kinds of words--they seem to come from a sense of playfulness, which benefits any language. Besides that, I grew up in Kansas, where our nickname was the Jayhawks--itself a portmanteau word at the time. What I think will be interesting to see is whether a term like Mockingjay will remain connected strictly to the Collins' books, or whether it will become a fixture in our language at large. If it does, expect it to become used as a verb form at some time, as in "He mockingjayed himself out of a position with the firm when they learned about his radical beliefs."

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎07-29-2010 07:05 PM

Fricka: yes, that's a good question about mockingjay. I wonder what will happen to it - many words first sprout in a novel and then enter the language at large, which I always consider an excellent thing. I'm a big fan of descriptive dictionaries and grammar - I like to see English change and evolve.

Other words from novels: I always think of "grok," Roberth Heinleins great creation, and of Burgess's fabulous creations in Clockwork Orange. A bit of the old ultraviolence, eh? And even more.

by WilliamWright on ‎08-06-2010 12:46 PM

I have recently been learning Norwegian and it is very common in the language to join two or more words together, and i think his has subconciously been making me do it more and more. :smileyvery-happy:


one portmanteau word that i hope will become more widely known in the literary world is 'litcast', which is a project i have been involved in with my publisher here in Oslo, GriegBok - 'litcast' is constructed from 'lit' as in literature and 'cast' as in broadcast or podcast.   It is basically a type of audio book, available as a download, initially it was intended to be mobile phone based, but has since spread to iTunes, Audibible and the like.


I guess the point is that technology and the current trend for having multifunction devices is likely to bring a whole flood of portmanteau'd words into use





by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎08-10-2010 10:36 PM

WilliamWright: I will definitely check out that site. Litcast sounds interesting, and I know a lot of audiobooks fans. Podcast is a great compound that will give rise to others, no doubt, but I especially am intrigued by the ideas that multifunction devices lead to multifunction words. I think of texting and sexting, and other funny ones, immediately come to mind.

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