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The word

One-day wonder

How fast can a word become legit?

By Erin McKean
May 30, 2010

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How fast can a word enter the language?

A couple of weeks ago, an apparently totally made-up new word seemed to set the land-speed record for the jump from “early use” to “inclusion in a dictionary.” On May 12, the word malamanteau showed up in the Web comic xkcd, where it was defined as “a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism.”

It’s not the clearest definition ever written, but the idea is that a malamanteau blends one or more not-quite-right words to create a completely new one. Examples include the classic misunderestimated, bewilderness (as in “lost in the bewilderness”), and insinuendos (innuendo + insinuation).

The comic in which it appeared — self-described as a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” and beloved by Web geeks — showed the word malamanteau as the subject of a Wikipedia page, with the caption: “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?”

And just like that, we were off. In a sterling example of life imitating art, a Wikipedia page for malamanteau was speedily created — and just as rapidly deleted for “not being a real word,” but not before generating thousands of words of discussion as to its “realness,” “notability,” and general usefulness or lack thereof.

I’m a regular reader of xkcd (even its name appeals to wordy people — it was deliberately chosen by the author, Randall Munroe, to be an unpronounceable and meaningless four-letter word). So when I saw malamanteau show up in the comic strip, the very first thing I did was head to Wordnik, the collaborative online dictionary that I run. I wasn’t disappointed: By the time I got there, the word already had its own entry, complete with reference to its appearance in xkcd and examples of malamanteaux (the preferred plural). The word quickly made it to the Urban Dictionary, too, although the first meaning there, where users vote on their favorite meanings of words, is slightly different. 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.

True, for many English speakers, use in a Web comic and inclusion in a couple of online dictionaries are not enough to establish malamanteau as a “real” word. But 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.

Some people feel that words made up, on purpose, as jokes can never be real — that they always keep their second-class status. Others feel that words need to “cure” for some unspecified period of time, cooling their heels in the English-language waiting room, until they’re admitted to the list of things generally accepted as words.

But 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 (leaving aside the Wikipedian-irritant one), 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, and the word has been looked up more than 1,800 times on Wordnik.

Why then the knee-jerk “not a real word” reaction of so many people to malamanteau? Since online dictionaries are effectively limitless in scope, it’s not like malamanteau is taking up space that would be better used for other words. And it’s not crowding out a worthier word, as there wasn’t already a well-known term for this phenomenon. 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.

And it’s not even as new as its detractors claim. It has appeared once before, in 2007, when it was proposed by a commenter on the website Metafilter as a term for language errors such as flustrated (for flustered + frustrated) and misconscrewed (for a blend of misconstrued and screwed, as in “I misconscrewed it up”). The commenter, Steve Goldberg, a Philadelphia musician, also suggested portmanpropism as an alternative. But until xkcd gave it a boost this month, neither one showed any signs of catching on.

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.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.