My Portmantobsession

"Portmanteau" is a term coined by Lewis Carroll for a word combination. For example, the word "motel" combines "motor" and "hotel" and describes a thing distinct from those two terms. There are hundreds of portmanteaus in common English usage, many dealing with matters of human sexuality and gender identity, such as "murse," "bromance," "gaydar," and "hasbien." And of course there is also "blog."

I have an almost pathological obsession with portmanteaus. I can't help myself. Brevity is a value that I've internalized so deeply that my brain forces me to condense perfectly functional phrases into totally dysfunctional wordbominations such as "wordbomination." I constantly attempt to compact multi-word phrases into solitary words, to the detriment of my poor wife, who is routinely subjected to this ridicularity. Pity her.

Luckily, I can find some solace in my profession because the law is not without its own portmanteaus. For example, there is the word "avigation," which combines "aviation" and "navigation," and which has emerged as an accepted term in the law of easements. Even the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized it in 1959, in the case of U.S. v. Brondum (272 F.2d 642, 645).

The most frequently-used legal portmanteau is probably "gerrymander," which refers to the practice of rearranging electoral districts to give one political party (or perhaps even one racial group) an advantage over another. But what two words does gerrymander actually combine? The first word, "gerry," comes from Elbridge Gerry, an American politician who signed the Declaration of Independence and was the fifth U.S. Vice President, serving during the presidency of James Madison. Gerry died in that office, but prior to becoming the Veep, he was governor of Massachusetts. That era of his political career is how his name became the first half of "gerrymandering."

In 1812, Gerry's fellow Republicans redrew the electoral district lines in a way to solidify their hold on the state legislature to the detriment of the Federalists. One of their new districts was so creatively drawn that the Boston Gazette published a cartoon satirizing it as a dragon-like reptile and named the practice "Gerry-mandering" (a combination of "Gerry" and "salamander."). The term caught on and is now used by news media and political commentators alike to refer to any political redistricting perceived as unfair.

Though writing is a dominant part of my legal practice, I have yet to inject any portmanteaus of my own design into my motions and briefs. For one, it's almost always dangerous to test a judge's patience in such a way, since portmanteaus are at least somewhat linguistically similar to puns, the humorous value of which is much debated. For two, a portmanteau in which the elements are confusing or unclear is doomed to failure. After all, it may be tempting to use the term "legurdity," but how likely is it that a judge will even recognize the combination of "legal" and "absurdity," let alone think it is clever?

For now, I will continue to reserve my genius portmanteaus for my wife and my friends, whose resentment -- though deep and surely justified -- can't prejudice my poor clients.