03 June 2010

How fast can a word become legit?

As I had mentioned before (here and here), I guess I had forgotten that *not* everyone reads xkcd. But THEY SHOULD!   http://www.xkcd.com/

Back in May, we saw this image:

To be clear: this Wikipedia page did not exist at the time, but it now does, and redirects to xkcd.  I mean, I heard some people created it right away when this xkcd was posted, but then Wiki deleted it.

What does it actually mean?
Actually malamanteau is a combination of two words malapropism and portmanteau.

  • Malapropism means to use a word in place of another word that makes the same sound, but doesn’t deliver an appropriate meaning, for example, odorous for odious, comprehended for apprehended and auspicious for suspicious and benefactors for malefactors. All these are malapropos of each other.
  • Portmanteau means to merge two words with each other in such a way that the sounds of the two words become merged as well as their meanings. In this case malamanteau is a portmanteau of portmanteau and malapropism, whereas malamanteau is also a malapropos of portmanteau.

I love that this little comic strip caused so much rukus! 
Within hours of its posting, malamanteau was already defined in http://www.wordnik.com/ and Urban Dictionary [although there, it’s “a word defined to infuriate Wikipedia editors”]. Time from the word’s debut in a comic strip to appearance in a dictionary: less than half a day.

Whether you consider malamanteau to be a real word or an elaborate joke, it is a classic example of the kind of word that people argue about when they argue about what makes a word real.

If we leave the circumstances of its birth aside, malamanteau already has a number of the qualities we associate with real words. It has a clearly defined meaning, and seems to be fairly useful (we all recognize the real-world phenomenon that it attempts to describe). It has been used, or at least looked up, by thousands of people. On May 12 it made the top 10 list on Google Trends.

Its comic-strip origins may cast a shadow on its credibility, but comics have given us a number of new words — brainiac, goon, and skunkworks were all either coined or popularized in comics.

So: Is malamanteau a “real” word? It may depend on what you consider real — does a word’s “realness” comes from its use, or from its pedigree? For some, malamanteau will only become real when it’s used, unconsciously, by someone who’s never heard of xkcd. Every old word was a new word once, and at some point “silly word prank” may yet turn into “etymology.” It’s possible that day will never come, but until then, I say, if it acts like a word, we might as well let it be one.


Jon Berry said...

Words, words, words all you ever talk with are words!!

Chela said...

I get my info from all over the interbutts!