LINGUIST List 11.1378

Wed Jun 21 2000

Sum: Earliest Lexical Blending

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. 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 

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' --
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.
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
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

- --------------------
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-L@LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>

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
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