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The Lagniappe: The Precarious Art of Werging

I don’t know if you’re aware of a trend currently affecting our vernacular. It has been creeping into American parlance at an increasing rate over the past decade (an unscientific observation), and unfortunately, has even sprawled into mass media marketing.

For those discussing it (a small-ish flock), the favored term is yet to be agreed upon. It’s been called word splicing, word blending, word merging and word mashing, or, to employ the device itself, werging (pronounced wurj-ing).

When used effectively werging (a merge I am not too crazy about) can be both economical and hilarious; when abused the results are cringe-worthy. Example of the former: cankles (n. a condition in which the sufferer has no narrowing from the calf to the ankle, thus resulting in a tube appendage from knee to foot, considered unattractive by many. A blend of calf + ankles.) Example of the latter: probossibly (adv. perhaps, with a great likelihood. Derived from a botched werge of probably + possibly.)

Linguists call these “portmanteaus” or portmanteau words, a term coined by Lewis Carroll in the children’s book Through the Looking-Glass. I doubt this proper terminology will take hold in popular culture, or that the craft will be called portmanteau-ing.

Word splicing isn’t a new phenomenon. There are plenty of blended words which have existed for at least a century: brunch, witticism, chortle, and blotch. Many portmanteaus are forged out of necessity (like camcorder, amphetamines, liger, and stagflation), but it seems that this pastime once relegated to nerds and wordsmiths now sprouts up everywhere with everyone getting in on the action.ÿ

The name of one of the most popular websites in the world, Wikipedia, is a portmanteau (as are its wiki-spawn, like wiktionary). Wendy’s fast-food chain built an advertising campaign around its own dismal science: threeconomics. Comcast coined comcastic, and the Bravo TV channel refers to its reality stars as bravolebrities and the competitors on its show Top Chef as cheftestants. Academics took to the trend-remember Freakonomics and Affluenza? Even a quasi-political, anti-consumerism movement hopped on the train, christening its disciples freegans (free + vegan, though that does not perfectly describe their ideals).

Out on the virtual silks of the interweb, The Urban Dictionary, with over four million entries, is both a bastion and cesspool of made up words, a chunk of which are werges. The Addictionary houses a more refined collection of neologisms, but I was still left dumbfounded by the lousiness of most attempted merges.ÿ

The problem is that it is difficult to describe exactly when and why one portmanteau “works” and another epically fails. Chopping off the first part of a word and plopping it onto the back of another word seems like a simple task. Obviously sharing common letters and/or a similar sound structure is an important componentÿin any great merge, but there is something about the flow, the immediate resonance, and the swagger of the word (if you will) that, in my opinion vets the bad from the brilliant.ÿ

The mash cannot be cumbersome or awkward to pronounce. Generally, the definition of the newly-minted word must be instantly discernible (or made clear after a hasty breakdown). And then there’s that je ne sais quoi: the merged word should render you amused to have heard it.

DailyCandy published The DailyCandy Lexicon (Words That Don’t Exist but Should) in 2008, a booklet of their own crafty concoctions compiled over the last several years. The introduction briefly dissects the emergence of the trend. Things like the shrinking of our world, the increasing homogeneity of our upbringings, and the deluge of technologies that foster a clipped-speak are all proposed as root causes. I also harbor my own (Thomas) Friedman-esque theories regarding the trend, but I won’t debate the merits of these explanations here.

Instead I’d like to expose your vocabulary to some of the better examples I have come across in the last few years. There are plenty of blends that are of-the-moment funny, but I’m hoping these in the “better of” list will have some staying power in at least one person’s verbal arsenal.

(Full Disclosure: I have brewed up some of these merges-alone and with others-but won’t identify which words for fear of ridicule.)

biodebatable-adj. Open to debate concerning the actual “greenness” of a product or service.
bromance-noun. The strangely wonderful platonic bond between two men.
cocused-noun. The ability to get really into something when under the influence of a certain illegal substance.
crassinine-adj. Concurrently gross and dumb.
drunctional-adj. Capable of performing tasks while inebriated. (Avoid heavy machinery, please.)
e-maul-verb. To stalk someone via e-mail. (Source: DailyCandy.)
frenemy-noun. An enemy cloaked in a thin veil of friendship.
gaydar-noun. The preternatural ability to tell which team a person bats for.
jaxi-verb. To steal someone’s cab after he has hailed it down.
lexecutioner-noun. A person with a particular knack for butchering language.
multislacking-noun. The concurrent execution of two or more time-wasting activities. Example: Perusing your sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s most recent Facebook album, Gchatting, and checking the website Texts From Last Night simultaneously at work.
nontourage-noun. A posse of sycophants. (Source: DailyCandy.)
nonversation-noun. Absolutely worthless dialogue.
prostitots-noun. Underage girls who are disturbingly dressed in revealing clothes and caked in heavy makeup.
scarea-noun. A rough patch of town. Can also refer to one’s creepy basement or the aftermath of any disasters, natural or manmade (e.g., your house on Saturday morning after a party).
sufficiando-noun. Someone who knows just enough about a topic to get away with sounding like an expert.
trustafarian-noun. A rare class of privileged young adults who subscribe to alternative, non-income generating lifestyles, yet rely heavily on their parents to subsidize them well into their late 20s. Many are found in Brooklyn, though their numbers have allegedly dwindled in light of the Great Recession.

AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY
Jenna Bernhardson is from Minnesota, and is in her second year as a Research Associate at HBS.ÿWhen not working diligently in the basement of Morris, she seeks out adventure and danger in Cambridge and the surrounding area.ÿTheÿmission of the Lagniappe is to push human achievement
to new heights.

December 7, 2009

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “The Lagniappe: The Precarious Art of Werging”

  1. Luke Dickson says:

    Some really clever ones in there. Many small smiles bought to face. Manks.

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  • Luke Dickson says:

    Some really clever ones in there. Many small smiles bought to face. Manks.

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