The use of portmanteaus

Is the English language changing more rapidly these days than ever before? As the influence of popular culture continues to expand, and the situation is such that academics and the highly educated are no longer the only people whose work is published and made accessible to the masses, does this subsequently result in a decline in linguistic standards?

Speak to many people of a certain age, and they would undoubtedly lament this to be case. However, their generation arguably spoke a version of English that varied greatly compared to that of their parents, as did those before them ad infinitum.

We’ve all seen someone raise their eyes to heaven or derisively ask for clarification when hearing a new word or phrase for the first time, but who has the authority to act as moral guardian for the language we use to communicate? Language certainly reflects our environment, and as the world changes, so too must the medium in which we relate ideas to each other.

Upon first glance, it does seem that there is more flexibility these days to play with language and introduce mashups of words blended together: think ‘hangry’, ‘chillax’, ‘bromance’ and ‘staycation’. But looking into it further we’re able to see that such terms, known as portmanteau words, have actually existed throughout time. This blog itself is a combination of the words ‘web’ and ‘log’. Go back in time only 15 years or so and the word hadn’t been assimilated into mainstream usage by then, whereas now very few would consider it to be reflective of the decline in language standards.

A further interesting point to recognise is that a great deal of the words we use on a daily basis – from ‘motel’ and ‘cheeseburger’ to ‘breathalyser’ and ‘telemarketing’ – are all examples of blended words; however, because these examples already existed by the time most of us had started learning how to speak English, we do not consider them to be an aberration of the language.

So is it worth teaching these kinds of words to ESL students? Time will tell which blended words are here to stay. Even as I write this, the spellcheck on my computer chooses to underline some of these words in red, but not all of them. Perhaps ‘Branjelina’ and ‘alcopop’ are examples of portmanteaus which haven’t stood the test of time, but those prescriptivists who ardently bemoan the natural evolution of language would do well to remember that the authority of Oxbridge, to which many people look for guidance regarding correct English usage, is itself a mashup of two words.

Despite the fact that blended words have existed throughout time, it is arguably the case that the limited characters available on social media sites these days contributes to the growing use of such terms. Does language tend to be more direct and punchy in 2019? The use of portmanteaus is certainly a good way to grab people’s attention and convey more information in whatever small amount of screen space is available. Lastly, the reality is that many ESL students will be going on to work in a field where communicating in this manner will be required of them.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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