Words are a bit like people. Sometimes they’re magnetically attracted to each other. Once they get close, they end up mating and creating new offspring.
In linguistics, these hybrids are called blends.
Everyday English is littered with examples of them: Take “sitcom” – a mix of “situation” and “comedy.” Then there’s “motel,” the child of “motor hotel,” and “camcorder,” a cross between “camera” and “recorder.”
Blends enter a language with ever-greater frequency in the modern world. Technological networks like the global online community allow them to spread further and faster. What starts off as an internet in-joke can soon enter the speech of millions.
One good example is “staycation” – a stay-at-home vacation. It was coined by a journalist in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1944 but went unused for more than half a century. Once the 2008 financial crisis started putting pressure on people’s disposable income, it reappeared. More and more people were doing what the word described and it enjoyed a resurgence.
But just because a new word gets a toehold in a language, it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll have staying power. Some entrants disappear as quickly as they appear, while others strike deep roots in the linguistic earth.
“Chortle,” a blend of “chuckle” and “snort,” – coined by Lewis Carroll in his 1856 story Alice in Wonderland – is one of those hardy varieties. But “cafetorium,” a coinage briefly used in the 1950s to describe large halls that could be used as both auditoriums and cafeterias, barely hung on for a decade.
Understanding the way English blends words isn’t just of antiquarian interest though – it can also help us understand its past.
That’s because Old English was a prodigious blender.
For example, negation was a fairly straightforward affair in Old English. You just put “ne” in front of the word you were negating. So “I have” was “Ic haebbe” and “I don’t have” was “Ic ne haebbe.”
That led to endless blending. To say something like “I don’t have the pillow,” you needed to create a sentence like “I nave the pillow.” In this case, “nave” is a blend of “ne” and “have.” Similarly, if we still used the logic of Old English, we’d be saying things like “nam” for “I’m not,” and “nis” instead of “it isn’t!”