May 9, 2017 by libroshombre
Some words seem made to go together, and the ones that actually do become “portmanteaus.” A portmanteau’s a large, stiff-sided suitcase that opens into two equal parts, but it’s also defined by Oxford Dictionaries as a “word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel (from ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’).” The term was first used in this sense by Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass,” when he said, “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe” and ‘slimy.’ You see, it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed in one.”
Better examples abound: “bodacious: insolent or unrestrained” comes from “bold” and “audacious,” and “chortle: laugh in a breathy, gleeful way” is from “chuckle.” John McWhorter described this phenomenon in his book, “Words on the Move.” “Part of what makes a language alive is that new words come not only from people making up new words for new things, or taking words from other languages, but from words mating and yielding new ones … ‘flush’ is apparently what happened when ‘flash’ met ‘gush,’ and … ‘twirling’ is ‘twisting’ plus ‘whirling.’”
Few people ever extracted as much pleasure from words as George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strips that ran from 1913 to his death in 1944. Herriman’s strip was so surreal, lyrical, and strange that few papers would have carried it had not it been a favorite of William Randolph Hearst’s. Hearst ordered Krazy Kat run every Sunday throughout his newspaper empire. The strip featured a love triangle set in the desert of northern Arizona, complete with mesas, shifting backgrounds, and bizarre trees. The hero’s Krazy, a “kat” of indeterminate sex who loved a married mouse named Ignatz, who despised Krazy and indicated it by throwing bricks at his/her noggin, which Krazy takes that as signs of affection. Meanwhile police dog Offisa Pupp adores Krazy and is dedicated to providing protection from the evil mouse. That was the whole plot for 31 years.
Herriman’s love language made it soar. Here’s how he described Bum Bill Bee, a hobo and lesser character, peeling a banana: “Bum Bill Bee, the undetermined pilgrim who has his mind on nothing, and who has nothing on his mind, pauses on his journey to nowhere. At which moment, for no reason at all, he brings out of retirement by process of exfoliation that pale, pallid, and placid legume known in herbaceous circles of the better sort as ‘belzona banana.’ Need we say that this disrobement is as chaste in purpose as the ‘moon’ casting off her cloud of garments, or ‘Venus’ arising, having left in the arms of ‘Neptune’ her vestments of spray.” That’s only the opening panel. Eventually Krazy slips on the peel and Ignatz’ brick goes astray.
Krazy spoke with a semi-Yiddish accent. The first panel in the January 18, 1920 strip, for example, opened with Krazy sitting disconsolate in a large field of snow: “Tis ‘winta,’ the sizzin of the year when only ‘Polo Bears’ and ‘Raining Deer,’ and ‘Kets’ like me what has warm fur coats on them can come out.”
Obviously, I agree with Tom Robbins, who said, “Those who shun the whimsy of things will experience rigor mortis before death.” Sharing whimsy’s always pleasurable; that’s why I volunteer to read light-hearted, fun graphic novels on Fridays to Ms. Finnell’s fourth-fifth grade class at Pearl Creek School. A recent book mentioned the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I asked if anyone knew the meaning of “pied.” One student knew “pied” means multi-colored clothing, but few knew the Pied Piper story.
The Grimm brothers told their version, but other primary sources – a cathedral stained glass window, an inscription on the town hall wall, and several manuscripts – confirmed that on June 26, 1284 the children of Hameln, Germany went away. None of these mention anything about rats, however, and it’s speculated points that the culprit was plague, the doomed religious “children’s crusades,” or famine causing the adults to banish the kids.
Encouragement to read for pleasure, a true act of whimsy, is one of the greatest gifts children can receive, and while public libraries are excellent at fostering it, parents are best. So mamas, whatever you do, don’t let your babies grow up to be “screenagers: typical adolescents who overindulge in screen entertainment.”