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Deepti Menon


A blog series exploring the etymology of some interesting words


Would you like a Palindrome or a Portmanteau?



What is a palindrome? /pal/in/drome/

A palindrome is a word, verse or sentence that reads the same backward or forward. For example, “Step on no pets” reads the same both ways and is a palindrome.

‘Palindromic’ is the adjective.

Etymology: It was Ben Jonson, the English playwright, who coined the word ‘palindrome’ from the Greek roots ‘palin’ which means ‘back again’ and ‘drome’ which means ‘direction or way’, or from the Greek ‘palindromos’ meaning ‘running back again’. The ancient Greeks and Romans were adept at creating palindromes.



A palindrome is a piece of constrained writing. It needs to be thought out carefully and with precision.

Character palindromes: These are single word palindromes. For example:

 ‘noon, tenet, rotor, race car, kayak, civic, level and refer’

Phrase and sentence palindromes: For example:

What do you think Napoleon exclaimed when he first saw Elba, the place where he was to be imprisoned? “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” This made sense, considering that he considered himself able before he was locked away.

Some other examples are:

“Mr Owl ate my metal worm.”

“Was it a cat I saw?”

“Madam, in Eden I’m Adam.”

“Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?”

One can well imagine a teetotaller telling a burly sailor, “Red rum, Sir, is murder.”

Number palindromes: These are numbers whose digits read the same both ways, like 1991, 2002 and 8668.

It was James Joyce who invented the longest English palindromic word ‘tattarrattat’ in his celebrated novel ‘Ulysses’ (1922). This referred to a knock on the door.

In 1983, this amazing palindrome, consisting of 49 words, was created by Guy Steele.

“A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal – Panama!” An amazing feat, wasn’t it?


Portmanteau Words:

There are two meanings to the word ‘portmanteau’. /port/manto/

  1. A stiff leather bag which opens out into two parts
  2. A word which is a blend of the sounds and meanings of two other words

The plural is ‘portmanteaus’ or ‘portmanteux’. /port/ mantoz/

Etymology: This word has its origins in the French ‘portmanteau’, consisting of ‘porter’ (carry) and ‘manteau’ (mantle/ cloak).

In 1871, Lewis Carroll used the word ‘portmanteau’ in his ‘Through the Looking Glass’. Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice how words are combined in unusual ways in ‘Jabberwocky’. For example, mimsy’ comes from ‘miserable’ and ‘flimsy’, and ‘slimy’ and ‘lithe’ turn into ‘slithy’. His exact words are, “You see, it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Examples galore abound in today’s world. For example:

  1. ‘Podcast’ is coined from combining the words ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’.
  2. The cities suffer from a combination of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’ – ‘smog’.
  3. When we feel hungry in the middle of the day, we prefer to have ‘brunch’, a convenient meal between ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’.

We often use portmanteau words, sometimes without realizing where they come from.

  1. Tanzania – Tanganyika + Zanzibar
  2. Eurasia  - Europe + Asia
  3. Microsoft -  microcomputer + software
  4. Oxbridge – Oxford + Cambridge
  5. Infotainment – information + entertainment
  6. Advertorial – advertisement  + editorial


  1. Electrocution -  electric + execution
  2. Internet – international + network
  3. Netizen – internet + citizen
  4. Brexit – Britain +exit
  5. Pixel -  picture + element

The word ‘mansplaining’ (man + explain) has picked up in today’s world, and refers to men explaining things to women in a condescending fashion. Likewise, a person who is a friend, but behaves more like an enemy can be dubbed a ‘frenemy’. When two men bond well, it is known as a ‘bromance’. Some of the more garrulous TV channels have turned ‘bodacious’ (bold + audacious), as they attack ‘Bollywood’ (Bombay + Hollywood), ‘cineplexes’ (cinema + complexes), ‘metrosexuals’ (metropolitan + heterosexuals) or politicians and their ‘dramedy’ (drama + comedy).

Portmanteau words do stimulate the creative mind as they add piquancy to the language with new coinages. But sometimes, they get hold of the wrong end of the stick, especially when journalists and tabloids take it upon themselves to create portmanteau words by linking the names of celebrity couples, which attain popularity in their own right. Thus, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are known as ‘Brangelina’, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez turn into ‘Bennifer’, and our very own Saif and Kareena are dubbed ‘Saifeena’.

One of my favourite portmanteau words is the oh-so-cute ‘emoticon’ (emotion + icon) which allows us a variety of expressions to expose our feelings online! J

OK, folks, now it’s time to go and ‘chillax’ (chill +relax)!  

See you next week, when I come back with fresh ‘anecdata’ (anecdote + data) 




Deepti Menon ia an editor and author based in Chennai. She has written two books, Arms and the Woman and Shadow in the MirrorMany of her short stories can be found within the pages of popular anthologies like 21 Tales to TellChronicles of Urban Nomads, Mango ChutneyCrossed and Knotted (India's first composite novel that has found a place in the Limca Book of Records), Rudraksha, Upper CutDefiant DreamsWhen They Spoke, and many others.