I took the day off from work last Friday, and when I returned on Monday my department had been transformed into a Halloween spectacle that my coworkers declared spooktacular. There were cobwebs and orange lights and fake skeletons and balloon bats. Seriously. It looked like Halloween had vomited all over my cubicle—in a (mostly) good way.
I work in marketing and, for many brands, Halloween time means stretching subject lines and ad copy with ghostly themes and (often poorly thought out) Halloween puns. This extends into everyday life as well. You might make jokes about how “scary good” something is or call small children “little monsters.” Or you’ll make puns like boo-tiful or sand-witch. My favorite variation of this Halloween wordplay trend, however, is the portmanteau.
You know this one. When you take part of two or more words and mash them together into a Frankenstein word that means something new, like spooktacular, Shocktober, or Frankenfoods.
A (Suit)Case for Portmanteaus
Portmanteaus—which combine parts of multiple words to create a new word—are one of several major ways a language can get new words. This is slightly different than a compound word, like greenhouse or suitcase, which describes one concept using two complete words (suit + case = suitcase). A portmanteau is made up of two or more word parts, which can be whole words or just parts of words. Rather than sticking two words together, you blend them. For example, the word spork takes just the first bit of spoon and the last bit of fork, rather than using the whole word from each (spoonfork).
Appropriately, portmanteau is itself a blend of two Latin words: portare (to carry) and mantellum (cloak); as its origins might suggest, it is also the word for special kind of suitcase with both a compartment for hanging clothes and a normal suitcase compartment for folding clothes. Lewis Carol was the first to use the word portmanteau in its word-blending sense—using the suitcase definition as a metaphor for this type of word creation.
In Carol’s novel Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty talks to Alice about the mashed up words like “slithy” in the “Jabberwocky” poem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, comparing them to this suitcase with two purposes packed into one.
Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.
. . .Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).
These types of blend words pop up all the time: infomercial, guesstimate, jeggings, Gerrymandering, Brexit. Some have become so ingrained in our lexicon, we don’t even think of them as word blends anymore: smog, motel. There isn’t one clear pattern for how these words are formed, but they all emerge (as many new words do) because of some perceived gap in our lexicon. We decide we need a word to describe a chocolate addiction (chocoholic) or a meal in between breakfast and lunch, hopefully accompanied by mimosas (brunch), and the word takes off in popularity…or it doesn’t. Sometimes the words feel forced, and other times they feel natural. But it’s all part of the process of creating new language.
How We Create Spooktacular Speech
So what about Halloween portmanteaus? They may seem like a more recent invention, but as Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber notes, the word spooktacular was used as early as 1897 (though it didn’t become popular until later). Others are much more recent. While the meaning of Frankenfood (a genetically modified food) extends well beyond Halloween, it’s partially derived from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and this word originated in the early 1990s.
I should note, the Halloween portmanteaus I’ve described so far are more than just puns, though they are punny too. When you call someone your ghoulfriend you’re just making a joke based on the similar sounds of girl and ghoul—you might not necessarily mean your girlfriend is also ghoulish. But Shocktober means something different than October does—it highlights an emphasis on scary movies, horror, and other frightening things during Halloween month. The new word combines of the meaning of both the original words to create something new.
There’s something about Halloween that gets people excited, and that excitement translates into language innovation and wordplay. I love that all over Twitter, people change their account names to add Halloween references and emojis (e.g., changing Sarah to Scare-ah), and Halloween parties and festivals embrace language play (like a Howl-o-ween meetup I found). If there’s a Christmas or Independence Day or Labor Day version of Shocktober, I haven’t heard it (but if you have, tell me about it!). People like to judge other people’s language, and that doesn’t change at Halloween, but there does seem to be a greater allowance for fooling around with words. It feels more permissible, as it should be all the time. And that’s pretty spooktacular.