The word collaboration is from the Latin for ‘working together’. It may be overused as a word, but its results can be remarkable. A well-known story tells how, when John F Kennedy toured NASA in the mid-1960s, he came across a man mopping the floor. ‘What does your job entail?’ the President asked. The reply came: ‘I’m helping put a man on the Moon.’ The exchange between the two men beautifully illustrates the value of a shared objective.
Collaboration can happen linguistically too – notably when words come together and create something new. ‘Brunch’ is a famous example, alongside ‘motel’ and ‘modem’. ‘Blends’ like these are a form of word-play that we have been indulging in for centuries: revellers in the 1800s were already talking about alcoholidays, while nobodaddy was the term du jour for someone who had dramatically fallen from grace. In the 20th century, smog (smoke + fog), ginormous (gigantic + enormous) and piccalilli (pickle + chilli) continued the vogue. One of the best was surely pifflicated – a useful descriptor for the act of ‘being drunk and talking piffle’.
It was Lewis Carroll who gave us the word ‘portmanteau’ for such creations, based on the image of words that are ‘packed together’ like two halves of a suitcase. He himself gave us some of the best – chortle, for example (chuckle + snort), as well as slithy (slimy + lithe) and mimsy (miserable + flimsy).
Today, blending is still the most popular mechanism for creating a new word. Some of the results may be fly-by-nights, but they raise a smile nonetheless. We all know about bromances and labradoodles, but how about anticipointment, the disappointment that comes from something eagerly anticipated? A snaccident, meanwhile, is the inadvertent consumption of an entire packet of biscuits when you meant to have just the one.
Others look set to stay the course – hangry was a recent addition to Oxford’s dictionaries, defined as ‘bad-tempered or irritable as the result of hunger’. Devon’s moodle, meanwhile, meaning to ‘dawdle aimlessly’, is a euphonious blend of ‘mooch’ and ‘noodle’. But if I had to choose a personal favourite from this century, it would be probsolutely: the pithy and highly useful articulation of a ‘definite maybe’.
Hard-working, innovative, useful and fun – linguistic collaborations may not put a man on the Moon, but they can offer some very useful pointers for successful teamwork (no probsolutely about it.)
Wonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.