Why Thanksgivukkah Is a Portmanteau — and What That Means

Holiday Mash-Up Offers Two Words For the Price of One

All the King’s Dirigibles: In ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the character of Humpty Dumpty explains the concept of a portmanteau word like ‘Thanksgivukkah.’
Getty Images
All the King’s Dirigibles: In ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the character of Humpty Dumpty explains the concept of a portmanteau word like ‘Thanksgivukkah.’

By Philologos

Published December 01, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Given all the hoopla surrounding it, it’s surprising that only one reader has written in about “Thanksgivukkah,” the word coined for this year’s coinciding of Thanksgiving dinner with the first night of Hanukkah. The reader is Amy Mintz of Sugar Hill, N.H., who complains:

“This is such an assimilated-sounding combination! And it’s hardly a combination. It takes most of Thanksgiving and only one letter of the root of Hanukkah. If Hanukkah were to be an authentic part of this collaboration, it should be ‘Thanksgivnukkah,’ don’t you think?”

Indeed I do. Hanukkiving might be even better. Yet since we’re dealing with something that won’t happen again, so we’re told, until the year 79,811, I wouldn’t spend too much time arguing about it. By then, English may be an even more forgotten language than ancient Sumerian is today.

Whatever languages are spoken 77,000 years from now (unless we’re all communicating by brain chip long before that), portmanteau words will probably still exist in them. That’s a word that, like “Thanksgivukkah,” is created by running together truncated parts of two separate words. Sometimes these fusion words are mere jokes or curiosities, like “Thanksgivukkah” or “tiglon,” which is a cross between a tiger and a lion. (Personally, I’ve never encountered a tiglon, but if you ever do, that’s what you should call it.) In quite a few cases, however, they have entered our everyday vocabulary. Consider “smog,” “brunch,” “cheeseburger,” “newscast,” “motel” and other words that we no longer even think of as artificial creations. Others, like “guesstimate” or “stagflation,” though their artificiality is still felt, are now used regularly, too.

A portmanteau was, in its last, 19th-century incarnation, a leather suitcase that opened into two separate compartments. (The term is, fittingly, a portmanteau word itself, coming from French porter, to carry, and manteau, a coat; the original portmanteau was a French adjutant who carried an officer’s cloak or bag.) It was first compared with two fused words by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking Glass” (1872), his sequel to “Alice in Wonderland.” There, Alice is engrossed in conversation with Humpty Dumpty, whom she asks to explain Carroll’s immortal nonsense poem “The Jabberwocky.” After she recites its first lines of “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe,” the narrative proceeds:

“That’s enough to begin with,” Humpty Dumpty interrupted. “There are plenty of hard words there. ‘Brillig’ means five o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.”

“That’ll do very well,” said Alice. “And slithy?”

“Well, slithy means lithe and slimy…. You see, it’s like a portmanteau — two meanings packed into one word.”

By the late 19th century, “portmanteau word” had become an accepted term. English portmanteau words themselves, however, go back to at least the beginning of the century. Perhaps the earliest recorded instance of one is “gerrymander,” which dates to the American election campaign of 1812. In that year, Massachusetts’s governor, Elbridge Gerry, promoted and signed a bill that redrew the state’s electoral districts to the benefit of the Democratic-Republican Party, to which he belonged. (Yes, there once was such a thing; founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, it was the main rival of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party in the early years of the Republic.)

Some of the new districts, carved out of old ones, had strangely irregular shapes, which led to the appearance of a cartoon in the pro-Federalist Boston Gazette, depicting one such district in Essex County north of Boston as a winged-and-clawed salamander, with the townships of Methuen, Haverhill, Amesbury and Salisbury composing an elongated neck twisting off to one side to the Atlantic Ocean. Accompanying the cartoon was an editorial calling this creature a “Gerrymander,” and the word was soon picked up by other papers. “Gerrymandering” being a common practice in both America and England, the term spread and was given official status by its inclusion in 1868 in the British-published National Encyclopedia, which defined it as “a method of arranging election districts so that the political party making the arrangements will be able to elect a greater number of representatives than they could on a fair system.” Humpty Dumpty would have been pleased.

And speaking of new words and of the spirit of Thanksgivukkah, a letter from Evan Rock declares:

“I would like to propose that we call the new breed of folk around us, as indicated by the Pew [Research Center] report and acclaimed by such papers as The New York Times and the Forward, ‘Pewish.’ They celebrate in their own way Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays. They celebrate their own newness and uniqueness.”

I myself might have called them pewtative Jews. One way or another, though, Thanksgivukkah is certainly a Pewish holiday.

A happy Hanukkah and Thanksgiving to you all!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.