Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blends, Word Play Offs, Sweet Tooth Fairies

Types of Blends
Click to enlarge.
(Gries, 2004)
Slanguage. Spanglish. Vocabulogic. Linguists call these types of words "blends" but they are more like collisions, because two words are smashed together, leaving out at least one letter in the process, merging sounds and meanings.  A blend is also called a portmanteau, a two-sided suitcase, so coined by Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland.  Michael Quinion describes blends more fully at World Wide Words. Examples include brunch (breakfast + lunch) and spam (spiced + ham). The other day, I encouraged a friend to "Enjoy the bruncheon" (thus using an established blend to spontaneously create a new blend). Click the image above to learn about different types of blends, but see my footnote. Read how blends reflect pop culture at the Lewis Carroll Society. 

Like churnalism, many of the neologisms "spied upon" by Paul McFedries are blends, reflecting the fact that blending has become fairly common. Word blending is a morphological process, just another way to create words. I have yet to read a study that measures the ability to construct or deconstruct a blend. Probably of low priority, but something to think about.

Note: A blend is similar to -- but not the same as -- a contraction: isn't, she's, you'll, etc. A blend is like a contraction in that they both involve smashing words together and omitting letters. However, a blend creates a new meaning. For instance, the blend emoticon denotes (and connotes) more than simply emotion + icon. In contrast, a contraction restates the meaning of the two words (wasn't denotes was not). Furthermore, in a contraction an apostrophe is inserted where the missing letter(s) would have been. 

The clever concoction fantabulous, used in the banner below to advertise the philanthropic and free (!!) vocabulary quiz-game Free Rice, is a blend of fantastic and fabulous.

Somewhat like a blend, a "sweet tooth fairy" is a new kind of word, created by Graham Hidderley/Burgess (see WordNik and Boston Globe). To create a sweet tooth fairy one combines two concepts (e.g., sweet tooth + tooth fairy). The final word of the first concept must match the first word of the second one. Delete the duplicated word, hence sweet tooth + tooth fairy  >>>  sweet tooth fairy (xy + yz = xyz).
Some popular sweet tooth fairies:
stop sign language
world peace train
magnetic personality disorder

complete chaos theory
social butterfly kisses
false economy size (see comments)

Want to interest students in words and phrases? Add blends and sweet tooth fairies to your fresh bread basket of ideas. Let the class construct and deconstruct them with peers, discussing them, rating their utility and appeal, using them in writing samples. Who knows where it might end! Start a contest, where the most creative inventors go to the word play offs.This is lots of fun should boost verbal proficiency. 

 Learn more about word play in chapter three of The Word Conscious Classroom (Scott, Skobel, & Wells, 2008). Scott et al. suggest that fostering an interest in words is especially promising for learners who are not surrounded with an enriched verbal environment at home. They say: 

An awareness of words, a love of words, and a curiosity about words do not just develop by themselves. Students who can recognize powerful language and use it themselves in their writing have developed this awareness through scaffolding by adults in their lives" (p. 12).
Depending on the skill level, the act of constructing and/or deconstructing a blend should deepen linguistic insight. Over the holiday, why not create a few blends and sweet tooth fairies. Engage in a little verbal volley. Go on, make some jelly bean soup! Be an Easter egg head.


Note: There are at least three types of blends and linguists do not always agree on what constitutes a blend, but for the purpose of understanding English words, it should be sufficient to simply identify the words that combine to form the blend and discuss the new meaning created by the blend.

  • Aronoff, M., & Fudeman, K. (2005). What is morphology? Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.  
  • Gries, Stefan Th. (2004) Some characteristics of English morphological blends. Andronis, Mary A., Erin Debenport, Anne Pycha, Keiko Yoshimura, eds. Papers from the 38th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society: Vol. II. The Panels. Chicago, IL: Chicago Linguistics Society, 201-216.
  • Scott, J., Skobel, B., & Wells, J. (2008). The word-conscious classroom: Building the vocabulary readers and writers need. New York: Scholastic - Theory into Practice Series.  


  1. HaHa! Easter Egg Head! Lovely STF.
    My current favourite is False Economy Size. You know, like the carton of ice cream that's just too big and you can't shut the freezer door. Hah!

  2. Hello, Graham. You are the clever creator of the sweet tooth fairy, are you not?

    False economy size is interesting--so many ways to interpret it, depending on the context.

    More with false: False tooth fairy! False witness booth! False lead dog.

  3. This morning, I came across a special case of a Sweet Tooth Fairy (STF). On the 5th floor of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt building in Boston, there's a refrigerator where employees can keep their lunch. Opposite the refrigerator, almost randomly (but not Random Housely), an American Heritage Dictionary of English Language (a proud HMH publication, of course) sits prominently on a wooden pedestal. For a reason that I can't really explain, I happened to take a look at its open pages.

    A brief digression is in order. I went to school in North Carolina and Delaware for Kindergarten, Germany for first and second grade, and North Carolina and Delaware for third grade. As a result, there were some places where my education didn't always line up. Plus, I sometimes don't pay attention. So, I didn't learn until after high school that there are navigational "keywords" at the top of dictionary pages. Now being proudly knowledgeable about the existence of these keywords, I pay them special attention.

    You can imagine how pleased I was to see the following words on the left page: honor society and hooker. And on the right? Hooker and hopefully. Now, if "honor society hooker hopefully" isn't a grand (and rare) STF, I don't know what is.

  4. Hi deepbrook. All too many children miss key topics as they move from school to school.

    By sheer happenstance you came across an intriguing mix of words. It certainly makes one think (and feel a bit sad).

    PS. I love the HM American Heritage Dictionary and use both the book and the CD version. This dictionary is one of the better ones because it includes word origins.

  5. This morning in the AHD:

    leave lederhosen ledge leg

    So close, if only "ledge" was absent.

  6. Anonymous4/10/2010

    rainy day + day light: rainy day light

    (today and tomorrow)

  7. Nice work, folks. You're heading for the word play offs!


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