I don’t like portmanteaux. I know there are many other matters which, it can be argued with some justification, are worth getting exercised about (sorry for the dangling preposition): Greenhouse gases, America’s ill-advised incursion in Iraq, unfair cast-system in India, unfair class-system in Britain, rise of ‘Islamism’ in some of the Islamic countries, anarchy in Congo, tigers getting on the verge of extinction, decline of Indian hockey and English cricket, trains not running on time, asylum-seekers demanding health care on the NHS, disappearance of the White working class in Britain, Homosexuals being allowed to marry, kids haring up all night on their mini-bikes disturbing neighbourhoods, fat women wearing hipsters, pizzas getting smaller in size, seventeen year olds yelling about how painful life is on ‘Top of the Pops’, young men and women with no discernible talent other than a willingness to show their private parts and ignorance on live programmes on national television becoming Z-list celebrities, and P-listed celebrities (presenters of television programmes) releasing DVDs of aerobics following childbirth purportedly to show how they managed to reduce their fat guts. But I get exercised about portmanteaux. You may want to point out, and some have done it, that I should get out more; that such concerns of the White Shoes should, and ought to, be ignored; that my life is either so empty or stress-free (or both) that I can think of no better subject than a silly morpheme few know and fewer care about (the dangling preposition, again; I can’t help it).
I should clarify at the outset, to avoid confusion, that by portmanteau, I mean portmanteau words and not a leather suitcase which opens into two hinged compartments. I have nothing against suitcases—coriaceous or un-coriaceous, hinged or unhinged. Indeed, when I travel I frequently take with me one or more hinged capacious suitcases to bring back cheap wine bottles, which, so that they don’t break in the travel, I wrap in underwear and socks. It is the portmanteau words that get my goat.
I am a reasonable man. I am not against all portmanteaux. I am not advocating a blanket ban on them. I am pleading for some perspective here. There are a few portmanteaux which, I agree, have become an integral part of our lexicon. Brunch, for example, or Workaholic, or motel. Workaholic is an interesting portmanteau. It is cobbled together from two words—‘Work’ and ‘Alcoholic’—to describe someone who is devoted to his work, for whom work takes primacy over everything else. You might even say that for a workaholic work has become an addiction—he has developed a compulsion to work (I am happy to announce that I am totally free of this affliction). However there is a subtle difference between the connotations of the two words. The word ‘Alcoholic’ is frequently said to convey disapprobation, which is not always the case with Workaholic, which, I have seen—or heard—or both—people using with a degree of admiration or envy, even. Linked to it is the portmanteau ‘Workaholism’, which I have seen being used in some magazines. Franchement! (As I have been told the French say to express their exasperation. If you find it too soi-distant, you can shrug your shoulders and exclaim ‘Puff!’) There are a few portmanteaux, which, like Workaholic, have found their niches: Bollywood, for example, made from Bombay (the capital of Indian film-making) and Hollywood, although, as Bombay has been renamed Mumbai, it should be Mullywood, or Mumliwood. Fanzine (Fan + Magazine), Camcorder (Camera + Recorder), Breathalyzer (Breath + Analyzer), Paratroops (Parachutes + Troops), Oxbridge (Oxford + Cambridge), Electrocute (Elctricity + Execute), Sexploitation (Sex + Exploitation) and Blaxploitation (Black + Exploitation) are a few portmanteaux that are so commonly used that we have ceased to think of them as such. Then there are portmanteaux such as Spanglish (Spanish + English) and Hinglish (Hindi + English), which are increasingly used to describe the influence of languages such as Spanish and Hindi on the English spoken by Indians and Latin Americans.
It can be argued that Workaholic serves some purpose in that it conveys a concept, albeit inelegantly, in one word and for which no synonym exists. Can one explain to me the point of portmanteaux such as Ginormous? This ugly word is gaining currency at a worrying speed. It is a blend of the words ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Enormous’. Now ‘Gigantic’ means something very large and extensive; and ‘Enormous’ means . . .err . . .exactly the same: something great in size. So what exactly is conveyed by ‘Ginormous’? When I asked this question to a colleague of mine he said that Ginormous is used to describe something that is way, way, off the scale in terms of size. When I pointed out to him that that is exactly what both the words mean—something that is outside of the normal range—he said that I was a pedant and that it was time I should concern myself with real issues such as third world poverty or what I could do to help the company achieve its vision (which would also enhance my chances of getting a promotion). Fantabulous is a silly portmanteau. This bastard word is created by forcing ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Fabulous’ to sleep with (or, to be more precise, on, or below) each other. ‘Fantastic’, in its adjectival form is used to describe something (or someone) that is ‘wondrous’, ‘superb’, or ‘remarkable’, especially when one wants to be appreciative, or ‘existing only in fantasy’, or ‘extravagant’. ‘Fabulous’ is used to describe something that is—you have guessed it—‘superb’, and ‘wondrous’—that is ‘fantastic’—or, occasionally to describe something that is ‘barely credible’ or ‘astonishing’. So when I hear people describing the ice-creams they are eating or some films they have watched or a song they have heard as fantabulous, I wonder wheteher they are ignorant of the meanings of these words, or the ice-cream (‘Ben & Jerry Chockchips (another portmanteau, damn it!’)) is so good and heavenly tasting to be barely credible. Gusstimate, apparently in circulation since the mid-nineteen thirties, is another unprofitable portmanteau. What possible purpose can be served by bringing together two words which have essentially the same meaning? It is a bit like Prince Charles’s sex appeal, or opening a school in Bronx: what’s the point?
It was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, that eccentric Victorian better known as Lewis Carroll, who used the French word to describe blending of different words, in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, although he was not the first one to create new words by blending existing words. Herman Melville, in 1849, coined the derogatory Snivelization from ‘Snivel’ and ‘Civilisation’; and Anecdotage (Anecdote + Dottage), suggesting garrulous old age, was recorded in the 1820s. Carroll was clever, it has to be said, in his choice of the word that is itself a ‘portmanteau’ (Is it a double metaphor? I am not sure). In his famous non-sensical poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which featured in ‘Through Looking Glass’, Carroll disambiguated, and, in the process, coined several, what were at the time, neologisms, some or more of which have found their way into the English language. Carroll would, no doubt, allow himself a chortle to find that the portmanteau he first invented, a blend of the words ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’, is still in wide use. Galumph is another word, first used by Carroll in ‘Jabberwocky’, which is still used, though not quite in the way Carroll meant it. I have, on occasions, come across Frabjous, a word Carroll first invented, and is apparently a combination of words ‘fair’, ‘fabulous’, and ‘joyous’. Finally, there is Vorpal, mercifully not used very often these days but you can find it in the dictionary, which means ‘sharp’ or ‘deadly’. Why these words entered the language, and not Frumious, which, as Carroll helpfully pointed out, was the combination of the words ‘Fuming’ and ‘Furious’, is a mystery. Old Carroll was probably having just a bit of fun when he wrote ‘Jabberwocky’, and was perhaps himself unsure of meanings and pronunciations of many of the words, all portmanteaux, in ‘Jabberwocky’, but, when the book and the poem became popular—the poem is taught in most primary schools— felt obliged to give explanations of what some or more of them meant and were pronounced. Much later Martin Gardner, in ‘Annotated Alice’, attempted an extended analysis of the poem and, by extension, all of its neologisms, which took the whole thing, as they say, a bit far.
There are websites devoted to portmanteaux where people are exhorted to tap their creative potential (!) and contribute portmanteaux. Some websites helpfully provide random pairing of adjectives and nouns, verbs and adverbs to encourage people to come up with fantastic (as in bizarre and strange) portmanteaux. Here is a list of some of the portmanteaux I have come across, which are so silly they are not worth commenting on:
Picture + Dictionary = Pictionary
Brad (Pitt) + Angelina (Jolie) = Brangelina
Cyberspace + Magazine = Cyberzine
Education + Entertainment = Edutainment
Talk + Marathon = Talkathon
Telephone + Marathon = Telethon
Beef + Buffalo = Beefalo
Clam + Tomato = Clamato
Plum + Apricot = Pluot
Cafeteria + Auditorium = Cafetorium
Man + Fantastic = Mantastic
Bad + Advantage = Badvantage
Animal + Male = Animale (why not Manimal?)
Begin + Initiate = Beginitiate
Brain + Intelligence = Braintelligence
Clap + Applause = Clapplause
Dream + Ambition = Dreambition
Derriere + Rear = Derrierear
Head + Administrator = Headministrator
Head + Adversary = Headversary
Hint + Intimate = Hintimate
Pain + Injury = Painjury
Saint + Intellectual = Saintellectual
Here is my own selection of pormanteaux which you don't see often being listed on websites devoted to them. Most of these, you will not fail to notice, belong to slang language, or should I say Slanguage? (Slanguage, I guess, is a double portmanteau as Slang itself is a portmanteau comprising as it does of 'Street' and 'Language'.) So here it goes: Custard. If you think it describes a dish consisting of milk, eggs, flavouring, let me tell you that it is in fact a portmanteau comprising ‘C**t’ and ‘B*****d’. Fugly is another one, which very nicely combines two adjectives: ‘F***ing’ and ‘Ugly’ (the first an informal intensifier that can be used to emphasize a variety of adjectives in a variety of situations), and creates a new word that can be used as both a noun and an adjective. What about F**kwit, a portmanteau that expresses succinctly, though perhaps not very subtly, the lack of respect for someone’s intellectual abilities? Or D**khead which conveys the same meaning. I prefer F**kwit which is gender-neutral, you can even say, politically correct, over 'D**khead' which you won't use to describe a woman when you want to succintly and pithily convey that you find her foolish, inept and contemptible. Fornatio could be a useful word that parcimoniously describes two type of sexual activities. How about Shagathon, when one wants to describe a prolonged sexual congress? Corpenad is not the non-sensical word it sounds. Comprising 'Corpulent' and 'Maenad', it is, I'll put it to you, a high-brow word (it shows, to those who care about these things, your expert knowledge of Greek mythology) that describes a well-fed woman who is in a state of frenzy (perhaps because of the delay in getting Big Mac Meal).
When I mentioned to a friend of mine my intention to post my fulmination against portmanteaux on this blog, he advised me to temper the diatribe pointing out that the word Blog itself is a portmanteau.
Sunday, 6 April 2008
Earlier this year the Times published a list of fifty greatest post-war British writers. (There have been so many wars in the twentieth century that many would wonder which war is being referred to here. However, whenever you hear Brits talking about 'the War', you can rest assured that it is the war unleashed by Mr. Hitler that is being talked about.) Making such lists is a harmless parlour game. It passes time; it gets a few critics and obscure novelists excited; it may even stimulate people into buying the books of the winner or winners. Winning the Booker prize, for example, as the overrated Arundhati Roy would vouchsafe, gives a great fillip to the sales of the novel.
Great is, well, a great word, and I am not sure what qualities a writer has to possess to qualify as great. The Times list, for example, features J.K. Rowling at a lowly 42 (yes they have provided ranking in the list which is a conglomerate of novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers) and Philip Pullman a place below her. Some might argue that this betrays the assemblers’ bias against children’s fiction, while others will be aghast that these two appear at all while David Lodge, Penelope Lively, and David Storey are excluded. (A friend of mine expressed surprise that V.S. Naipaul was included because he did not think Naipaul was English.) One name, though, I was very pleased to see featuring was Alan Sillitoe, one of the most underrated British writers. The prolific Sillitoe, in a career spanning five decades, has published more than a dozen novels, several stories, plays, poetry, essays, and children’s fiction. For me, even if he had not produced anything after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his astonishing debut novel, Sillitoe’s place in the literati’s Hall of Fame would be ensured.
Born in 1928 in Nottingham, Sillitoe had an impoverished, though not unhappy (as he likes to point out), childhood. His father was an illiterate tanner—in a literary festival Sillitoe narrated the touching story of how he went to Nottingham to meet his father with his first published novel and the old man, wonderingly turning the book upside down in his palms, asked him whether it meant he would not have to work for his living—, who, while Sillitoe was growing up, had long periods of unemployment. Sillitoe left school when he was fourteen, and, further education being out of the question, began working in factories. In 1945 he enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an air traffic controller, and, while posted in Malaya, he read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, which was to have a lasting impact on the young man. He contracted tuberculosis (not as a result of reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist), and, after spending a year in various RAF hospitals—he read avidly during his protracted convalescence—, he was ‘pensioned off’ at the age of twenty-one. Back in Nottingham he met the American poet Ruth Fainlight in a bookshop. The two fell in love and in the early 1950s sailed for the continent. Over the next six years they led an hand-to-mouth existence in France, Italy and Spain on Sillitoe’s RAF pension. During their stay in Majorca, Spain, the couple befriended Robert Graves, who encouraged young Sillitoe to write. Much later Sillitoe revealed that during this period he wrote four full length novels, ‘each one four-hundred page length’, which, by his own admission, were highly derivative, influenced as he was in those days, by the styles of Kafka and Joyce. He did not send these novels anywhere for publication. Then he began writing another novel, much of which was composed ‘in the autumn of 1956, sitting under an orange tree’. This novel was sent for publication and was rejected by four publishers. Another one accepted it but suggested changes in the novel’s ending. Sillitoe, who at the time had not published a single novel and had no other source of income than his meagre RAF pension, refused. The novel was eventually accepted by WH Allen and published in 1958. It was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Arthus Seaton, the twenty-one year protagonist of this novel, is a factory worker. He works the lathe in a bicycle factory whole week. On Saturday nights he gets blindingly drunk. The novel opens with Arthur falling down the stairs of a pub: ‘With eleven pints of beer playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach he fell from the top-most stair to the bottom.’ Arthur’s outlook on life is gloomy. He does not believe there is a way out for him from the daily grind that the life has in store for him. It can even be said that he does not wish to change either because he does not know how, or he hasn’t seen anything different, or both. He looks out only for himself, or, at the push, for his close family and friends. The beauty of Sillitoe’s writing is that he does not spell out these things and instead leaves it to the reader to figure out the protagonist’s rationale and motivation. Arthur is a macho man and is proud of the frequent pub brawls in which he gets involved. He is also carrying on with Brenda, the wife of his boss in the bicycle factory. This is an arrangement of mutual convenience: Arthur has no intentions of settling, either with Brenda or with anyone for the foreseeable future; Brenda, who is considerably older than Arthur, has no wish, on her part, to jeopardise her marriage with Jack with whom she has two young sons. Arthur does not have a trace of remorse or guilt about cuckolding his boss who has always been good to him. At times he suspects that Jack suspects, but does not care. A serious hitch arises when Brenda finds herself pregnant. Arthur’s advice is clear: she must get rid of the baby, which Brenda duly does with the help of a neighbourhood woman. Soon afterwards Arthur sleeps with Brenda’s sister, Winnie, whose ill-tempered husband, Bill, a swaddy , is away on army duties. At the same time Arthur has met Doreen, a girl nearer to him in age, who, at nineteen, is ‘afraid of being left on the shelf.’ She is looking for a relationship, engagement even, while Arthur’s interest in her, to begin with, lies firmly south of the border. A consummate liar, Arthur weaves several on-the-spot yarns to keep each of the three women unaware of what he is up to with the other two; however, when found out by the young Doreen, he is unremorseful and nonchalant about his conduct. Jack eventually tattles on him and Arthur gets beaten up by the swaddy and a friend, but not before he puts up a valiant fight. The first part of the book, titled Saturday Night, which comprises almost eighty percent, ends here. In the second half of the novel, Sunday Morning, Arthur, while still clueless about bettering his lot, shows signs of settling down. He patches up with Doreen and stops his clandestine affairs with married women. He thinks to himself at the end of the novel: ‘Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken, and if you know the big wide world has not heard from you yet, no, not by a long way, though it won’t be long now.’
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a raw, unapologetic, unromanticised account of the working class Britain in the second half of twentieth century, following the Second World War. Sillitoe presents the lives of hoi polli, the proletarian, as they are, close to the bone, without rose-tinted glasses. The novel is assertive in its tone without being offensive or excessively hostile. Beset with the punishing chores and the daily grind in order to survive, Arthur, or, for that matter, any character in the novel, has no time for, indeed they have an attitude of healthy disrespect bordering on contempt towards, lofty principles such as patriotism cherished by those who have by and large more than enough to eat. Arthur’s cousins, his aunt Ada’s sons, are army deserters, and Arthur is full of admiration and support for them. ‘Why do they make soldiers out of us when we are fighting up to the hilt as it is?’ he asks. ‘Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers army, government. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, apart from the work we have to do and the way we spend our wages. . . . Dragged –up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into a khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at week-end and getting to know whose husbands are on nightshift, working with rotten guts and aching spine. . .’ A devastating indictment of war and the irrelevance of it to the unorganised lower levels of proletariat.
The novel’s outlook may be bleak, but it is not a grim novel to read. Sillitoe writes with great exactitude and mastery. His descriptions of situations and characters are vivid yet precise. This is how Arthur Seaton’s father is described: ‘Short, stocky, Seaton was incapable of irritation or mild annoyance. He was either happy or fussy with everybody or black-browed with a deep melancholy that chose its victim at random.’ The language spoken by the working class is represented in a clear and striking manner, but is not overdone unlike some of Orwell’s novels. The working class lives are depicted with great warmth without being patronizing. Only those who know their milieus well achieve such authenticity and accuracy.
It is often thought that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is autobiographical, probably because it is set up in Nottingham where Sillitoe grew up, and the protagonist works the lathe in a factory, which is what Sillitoe did for five years. Sillitoe has dispelled this notion and has clarified that while the novel mirrors the sort of atmosphere he grew up in, it is a work of imagination in that ‘all the actors in it are put together from the jigsaw pieces assembled so that no identifiable characters came out in the end.’ This novel, in which Sillitoe found his true voice, was written, as he himself clarified years later, with no theme in his mind other than ‘the joy of writing, the sweat of writing clearly and truthfully.’ In this work, he said, he tried to portray ordinary people as he knew them, and in such a way that ‘they recognized themselves.’ He has certainly achieved that.
When the Times List was published, one Sir Howard Davies, who apparently chaired the 2007 Man Booker prize was quoted as saying: ‘I am very surprised to see no mention of David Storey, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury or Angus Wilson, and astonished by the absence of R S Thomas. All of those, to me, would rank higher than Alan Sillitoe, who is at No 20.’ Ignore Sir Davies (who couldn’t remember, for a start, that Anthony Powell, and not Sillitoe, is at No 20). Sillitoe is a superb writer. Read all of his books. And there is no better one to start your journey than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It is a perennial classic.