A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

From broceries to guybrarian to Galentine's Day, we often employ wordplay to poke at differences between the sexes

Hunt's "Manwich" has been using wordplay since the late 60s to man-up its sloppy joe mix.

So you had a bromance? And now he wants a dudevorce? Well, don't streak your manscara and guyliner crying about it. Your girlfriend may not want to hear your mansplanation — especially not if she's out talking herstory at a Galentine's Day get-together.

Yes, we often employ wordplay to poke at differences between the sexes. These words and phrases are typically blends that collapse two words together — sometimes called portmanteau words. It's tempting to call these ones portwomanteaux or, I guess, port-man-teaux for the laddish ones. Maybe portpersonteaux is the neutral term. But why all these words? And where do they come from? 

A lot of the "why" can be answered somewhat easily: These words are fun! When we make words like bromance and Galentine, we're doing what novelist Arthur Koestler called bisociation: making an "aha!" between two things that seemed disconnected. Nearly all of these portpersonteau words use rhymes or puns, and everyone knows those are fun.

And as to where they come from, there's no need to ask about the etymology — it's obvious what other words they're made from. No, the interesting question is the epidemiology. Confections of this sort spread like diseases. Look for a vector.

For instance, where did Galentine come from? Yes, it came from gal plus Valentine. But it didn't just come out of nowhere. It was introduced to the population through Parks and Recreation in 2010, referring to a female get-together on February 13. And how about manscaping — grooming for the male? It spread like the flu after being used on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003. 

Other words quickly follow on. We have a little-used Dudentine's Day that is based on Galentine's Day. Will it catch on? I don't know — have you seen it on a TV show? A little derivative, isn't it? But how about those elements of manscaping: manscara and guyliner? The latter, which has certainly caught on, might not even have sprung directly out of manscaping. The word seems to have shown up in goth circles by 2004, and MTV was using it by 2005: "Sure, most bands starting with 'the' use guyliner, but The Killers do it with style." Now you can go online and buy guyliner. Once it's in a product name, it's a thing. Think of the grand-daddy of the port-man-teau: Manwich, a sloppy Joe mix for a man's appetite, sold in cans by ConAgra and Hunt's since 1969. 

Some words spread more gradually and subtly. We know that bromance hit the scene big in the '00s with some buddy movies. But it's been around since the 1990s. It seems to have shown up first in the skateboard magazine Big Brother. Thanks to those circles in which men call other men "bro" — not just skaters but frat boys and similar sets — there is now a whole brocabulary giving in-group reinforcement for laddishness: you're brocrastinating buying some broceries for your latest brodown, which will be a real brodeo with your best bros before your brocation — a chance to have some brodak moments, do a little broasting, recite some broetry

So yes, we have some words that just reinforce stereotypes: Guys don't buy normal groceries, just broceries (beer, chips, and the like). And we have some words that talk about breaking the usual stereotypes: Guys are wearing guyliner and manscara because eyeliner and mascara are things women wear; a male working in the library must be a guybrarian because librarians are expected to be women. And we know what assumptions manorexic puts on display. These words are like aviatrix and policewoman: They chase social trends from a conservative perspective. But we also have some that do the opposite: See an established thing from a new angle. Buddies? No: bromance. A falling out with a buddy? No: Dudevorce

Perhaps the most classic portpersonteau word, and one of the most eye-opening, is herstory, which points out that history has typically been his-story, and gives a name to a different perspective. It burst onto the scene in the 1970s. You can see it in the August 1971 issue of Life magazine, in a story on what was commonly called "women's lib" then. But that certainly wasn't the first place it showed up.

Actually, like many a good wordplay, it had occurred spontaneously to someone else long before it became popular. Go to your shelf and pull out your copy of Frank Egan's 1932 book Through the Hollow Oak and you will see this: "'She,' said the man, 'is Queen Anne, and this is her story. So it's a Herstory book: Feminine of History,' he explained." It did not catch on from there, though — perhaps it was a portwomanteau whose time had not quite come. Also, it was in a children's book. 

But perhaps it was because "he explained." Women, men are slowly discovering, may not like having everything about themselves and their world explained to them in paternal fashion by a smug male. And now, at long last, there is a word for that kind of condescending, clueless explication: mansplaining, seen in the wild since 2008 and apparently first used in a web comment thread, but leaping up in popularity thanks to certain mansplanations during the recent election cycle — and to being Word of the Day on Urban Dictionary on February 24, 2011. 

Is mansplaining an ugly word? Lacking in any sort of pun or rhyme? Well, yes, it's not all that clever in appearance. But, then, the act of mansplaining is much less clever than the mansplainer thinks it is, so the word fits. And sometimes an idea whose time has come can't wait for language to line up so that the perfect pun appears. 


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