Hell No, Portmanteaux

Photo: Alamy (sign)

Few are better than a New York State assemblyman at turning a pet peeve into a municipal concern—and from a municipal concern, God willing, into a law of the land. Hakeem Jeffries, Brooklyn Democrat and one-man bullshit detector, announced last week a plan to regulate the real-­estate practice of applying jazzy new monikers to existing slices of the city. “Brokers are allowed to essentially pull names out of thin air in order to rebrand a neighborhood and have the effect of raising rents or home prices,” Jeffries told the New York Times. His bill, Jeffries explained, would require new names to withstand a vetting process and receive City Council and mayoral approval.

To understand the assemblyman’s true gripe, it helps to split linguistic hairs. New York, of course, has a long-­standing tradition of geographic shorthand. In what was once just “downtown,” Soho rose south of Houston and a triangle below Canal became Tribeca, acronyms that have since undergone an orthographic blending, to the point where the underlying words are almost forgotten. More recently, the trick has been applied, dubiously, to quadrants that already have established identities—the financial district rechristened as FiDi, which has not yet earned the right to lowercase that D. Some of these newer confections work better than others: Nolita, not unappealingly, evokes a brand of upscale evening pajamas; SoBro, an appellation for the South Bronx, suggests a novelty liquor. But what these labels have in common is that they merely shorten the names of places, not change their meanings.

“ProCro,” the coinage that seems to have sent Jeffries on his crusade, is a different animal. A blending of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, it qualifies as a portmanteau. The term describes “two meanings packed up into one word,” as Humpty Dumpty tells Alice. The result may be efficient (pluot, podcast), inane (sexpert), or depraved (cremains). At their most effective, portmanteaux are absorbed into the lexicon so smoothly as to become unrecognizable (electrocute, motorcade) as the Frankensteins they are. At bottom, they should describe a new thing (a test guesstimate fails), and, indeed, facilitate its existence. Large servings of French toast eaten at noon were just that, until someone came up with brunch.

Among scholars of linguistics and literature, portmanteaux are something of a wedge issue. James Joyce made a 600-page case for verbal mash-ups with Finnegans Wake, but to their critics, the made-up words destabilize the language. “The portmanteau … is a monster,” writes British academic Derek Attridge. In the part of Crown Heights annexed by ProCro, they might have a different beef, specifically about how that particular portmanteau subsumes their neighborhood and its apparently condo-marketing-unfriendly connotations. Still, regulating such coinages seems unnecessary—not when the language does that on its own. ProCro, after all, sounds like a name for a mixed-use fertility ­clinic–cryogenics lab. Who’d want to call such a place home?

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Hell No, Portmanteaux