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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to deliberately manipulate electoral boundaries to benefit a particular party

If you follow HH on Twitter, you might have spotted the word insinuendo the other day, meaning “an insinuated remark”.

According to the late Oxford English Dictionary editor Robert Burchfield, insinuendo is a “tasteless word.” Well, there’s no accounting for taste, of course. But as well as being “tasteless”, insinuendo is also a portmanteau—a blended word that brings together two existing words to form a new one.

Tthe term portmanteau was first used to describe “blended” words like these by Lewis Carroll, who took the name of a type of suitcase with two separate compartments and applied it to terms in which, “there are two meanings packed up into one word”.

Although Carroll was writing in 1871, it’s tempting to think of portmanteau words as a much more modern phenomenon. It’s certainly true that “blending” words together to form (albeit often fairly clumsy) new ones is still a very fruitful word-forming process today—you can take your pick from any number of recent examples, like fandom, bromance, mocktail, cosplay, metrosexual, guyliner, Brangelina, snowmaggedon, favicon, chillax, rockumentary, and mockumentary.

But despite their modern appearances, a lot of portmanteau are much older than they first appear—even insinuendo dates back to 1885.

Take a word like newscast, for example. Despite it’s relatively modern feel, its earliest appearance in the language dates from 1928, when it cropped up in an edition of Time magazine. The first motorcade drove through Rockford, Illinois, back in 1910. People have been eating with sporks since 1909, and enjoying brunch for even longer—it’s earliest record comes from an 1896 edition of the satirical magazine Punch that called it “an excellent portmanteau word … indicating a combined breakfast and lunch”. Unfortunately, another word the magazine tried to champion didn’t catch on:

At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination-meal, when nearer the usual breakfast hour, is ‘brunch’, and when nearer luncheon, is ‘blunch’.

Another early portmanteau—which sadly didn’t make the final cut in our video—is gerrymander. (Shameless plug #495: there’s more on this in the HH factbook, Word Drops—which is now out in the USA!)

Gerrymander derives from the name of American politician and diplomat Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was serving as a Governor of Massachusetts when in 1812 he signed a bill that redrew the boundaries of Massachusetts’ state senate electoral districts so that they would most benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. This practice was certainly nothing new (the Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry had tried the same trick in Virginia back in 1788), but it nevertheless soon became known as gerrymandering—a combination Gerry’s surname and the word salamander.

Why a salamander? Well, an article in the Boston Globe on 26 March 1812 happened to liken the shape of one of Gerry’s redrawn districts to that of a salamander, a lizard-like amphibian:

the salamander of elbridge gerry's gerrmandering system

Frankly, it’s the most un-salamandery salamander we’ve ever seen, but nevertheless the name stuck.

As for Gerry’s gerrymandering, did that work? It certainly did. At the 1812 election, the senate remained in his party’s hands. Gerry himself, however, lost his seat—but went on to serve as Vice President under James Madison the following year.

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