What is a mot-valise?

"Jabberwocky," Lewis Carroll

“Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll


A mot-valise is the French word for what we call a portmanteau in English. The OED succinctly defines “portmanteau” or “portmanteau word” as “A word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings.” Wikipedia, too, has a lot to say on the subject. The idea, quite naturally, comes from Lewis Carroll.

Carroll coined the term in 1871 as part of Through the Looking-Glass. It is introduced to readers when Alice, upon encountering Humpty Dumpty, discovers him to be an expert on such neologisms: “ ‘You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,’ said Alice. ‘Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called “Jabberwocky”?’ ”

Humpty Dumpty explains, quite sensibly, the significance of such words as “slithy” and  “mimsy” : “ ‘Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’ ”

In English, a portmanteau is just that—a small case divided into two compartments. The problem comes in the term’s translation to French: a porte-manteau is, in French, a coat rack. This does not seem to catch Carroll’s meaning.

Thus is born the term mot-valise, literally “suitcase-word.” It substitutes nicely for portmanteau, and is defined by Larousse as “Mot résultant de la réduction d’une suite de mots à un seul mot, qui ne conserve que la partie initiale du premier mot et la partie finale du dernier (par exemple franglais).”  It is a jeu de mots, a word game.

Curiously, the translation of the portmanteau passage in Through the Looking-Glass (according to Wikipédia) leaves something to be desired: De l’autre côté du miroir defines the word “slictueux” as “souple, actif, onctueux” (supple, active, unctuous). This does not quite achieve the same elegance as Carroll’s original: we clearly see the “onctueux” as it appears in “slictueux,” but the “souple” and “actif” seem to have lost themselves. Perhaps the word is really a portmanteau of “slimy” and “onctueux,” but in French “slimy” is best represented by “gluant” or “visqueux.” Should the true mot-valise for this part of “Jabberwocky” be “glutueux”? You’ve got to feel for the translator here.

In any case, portmanteau words are a part of every anglophone’s vocabulary today: smog, motel, and brunch are some of the most ubiquitous. In French, it is common to use franglais = francais + anglais (French + English) and courriel = courrier + électronique (electronic mail).

But you can have a lot of fun with mots-valises. Here are some of my favorites:

clur(e) = clair + sûr (clear + sure)

vréalité = vérité vraie (real truth/ true reality)

milichien = chien policier (military/police dog.)

Merditerranée = mer polluée (polluted sea ; from “merde.” Sea of poop?)

(As one might expect, “merde” figures in many French mots-valises.)

For me, “mot-valise” is an apt name for a blog aimed at contemplating words, travel, translation, mistranslation, and other silly things of which Lewis Carroll might approve. The metaphor of the mot-valise is also the literal “suitcase-word,” which I cheekily construe here as  “have words—will travel.”