Saturday, October 28, 2006

Portmanteaux

Last week, I mentioned that I got an email from a total stranger, which I cited as evidence that there are people in this world who actually read my blog from time to time.

This week, I will reveal the purpose of her email. It was to ask me if I would review the book Mixtionary on my blog or web site.

My first thought was, "I don't even promote my own books, so why should I promote someone else's?" I was never able to answer that question, but I told her I'd review it anyway because it sounded like an interesting book. The book, as she described it, "is a guide to communicating efficiently in the modern world -- in which new-fangled ideas and phenomena leave us at a loss for words." She then went on to say "I feel your readers who enjoy the multitude of humorous ways the English language can be changed to fit modern situations will find Mixtionary appealing." She also included a few sample definitions that appear in Mixtionary, which I will quote herein:

SHOERU (guru + shoe) A deeply knowledgeable style queen to whom you can turn for guidance in matters of footwear.

BIDIOT (idiot + bid) People who pay far too much for junk sold on eBay.


So the book is basically a collection of humorous portmanteaux, or as it calls them, "mixed-up modern words for the mixed-up modern world."

I was immediately reminded, of course, of the Sniglets books written by Rich Hall in the '80s. In all honesty, I never actually read one -- I never even saw one -- but they were sort of popular back then, and I'd occasionally hear somebody quote one on a radio show or see one in a post to some Usenet group.

Sniglets weren't necessarily portmanteaux, by the way -- they were billed as "words that aren't in the dictionary but should be," or something to that effect. Here are some examples:

CARPERPETUATION (kar' pur pet u a shun) n. The act, when vacuuming, of running over a string or a piece of lint at least a dozen times, reaching over and picking it up, examining it, then putting it back down to give the vacuum one more chance.

EXASPIRIN (eks as' prin) n. Any bottle of pain reliever with an impossible-to-remove cotton wad at the top.

ROVALERT (ro' val urt) n. The system whereby one dog can quickly establish an entire neighborhood network of barking.

TELECRASTINATION (tel e kras tin ay' shun) n. The act of always letting the phone ring at least twice before you pick it up, even when you're only six inches away.


I don't know about you, but I happen to think that sniglets are a lot funnier than mixtionary words. And that's the biggest problem I had with Mixtionary -- it isn't very funny. Sure, there are some clever entries, such as the two I mentioned above, and several others, such as BUREAUCRAP and JPEG'D and STOREGASM, but by and large, this book has more misses than hits.

And a lot of times, even when the words are funny, the definitions are cumbersome. For example, citing one of the examples above:

BUREAUCRAP (Bureaucracy + Crap) The obtuse web of intricate processes by which large organizations operate. Baffling systems only make sense to long time insiders.

They should have stopped after the first sentence. The second sentence does nothing except make the definition less funny. Still, it's not such a terrible definition, especially compared to some of the others. And the book is so full of turgid definitions that reading it becomes tedious after a while. For example, consider this definition:

CLIMACTING (acting/actress + climax) Working very hard to perform a fake orgasmic state that you've seen in the movies, read about in Cosmo and now try to recreate in your own boudoir.

This was actually one of the more clever words, but the definition is bloated and awkward ("perform a fake orgasmic state"?), and no funnier because of it.

I would have simply written:

CLIMACTING (climax + acting) Faking an orgasm.

The word is clever enough, and it doesn't need a lot of explanation, so why not keep the definition simple? That's just my opinion, of course, and I'm just one person. There are actually three writers of Mixtionary, so maybe they each felt the need to contribute something to every definition.

Here's another example:

HAULIDAYS (Haul + Holidays) That time of the year when you have to pull out all the stops to get your wife, your kids and all their crap to your in-laws house for the holidays, punctuated by the shrill cries of "Are we there yet?" from the kids.

Brevity is the soul of wit. Or that's what they say, but obviously there are at least three people who don't believe it. I'm just speculating, of course, but I think the authors of Mixtionary would have redefined one of the sniglets as follows:

CARPERPETUATION (Perpetual + Carpet) The act of vacuuming the same spot over and over again, until you finally pick up the offending piece of lint or string, take a good hard look at it, put it back on the floor and try vacuuming it again one final time before you ultimately give up in exasperation. Then you pour yourself a drink and decide to put off your house-cleaning responsibilities for another day.

In case you think I'm being too critical, I'm not. I haven't even mentioned some of the not-so-clever words. I'll spare you their definitions, but here are a few of them: CLEVERVOIDANCE, DUMPPOSURE, SETTLECIDAL, and SHOEPEDE.

So, all in all, I didn't like this book a whole lot. I think it showed promise, but it stumbled and fell too often. Of course, to be fair, a lot of sniglets aren't that funny either.

By the way, even though they're at least twenty years old, sniglets are still very popular, if we are to judge by the number of Google hits we find. As of today, there are about 147,000 hits for "sniglets," and 14,600 for "mixtionary." The "mixtionary" number is still very respectable, of course, especially when compared to such obscure search terms as "Catch-Hanger Fallcaster" (129 hits) and "Robert Barry Kaplan" (204 hits).

Of course, part of the reason there are so many "mixtionary" hits is that the book has a fairly massive advertising campaign. I've seen sponsored links to the Mixtionary site on language-related web sites, and the book has a page on MySpace as well. And of course, if a book gets sent to me for review, whoever is in charge of advertising is obviously leaving absolutely no stone unturned.

So I wish I could have given Mixtionary a better review, but I also know that whatever I think of it is not likely to affect its sales one way or another. I just don't have that kind of power. If I thought I could stop people from buying books just by saying I don't like them, I'd be seriously deluding myself. And if I thought I could get people to buy books just by saying how great they are, I'd probably start reviewing my own books.