There’s nothing like a continent-spanning currency crisis to spawn new vocabulary. And when the cradle of Western civilisation is at the heart of that crisis, there are several thousand years of cultural allusions and punning opportunities for headline-writers to exploit. We’ve had no end of Greek tragedies since the eurozone crisis began, frequent references to Greek mythology, and even a spot of Greek love.
And then there are the portmanteau words – where two words are blended to create a snappy, charming or hideous coinage. It may have been announced only in the early hours of Saturday morning, but already, Greece’s snap poll on the proposed austerity measures from the country’s creditors has been dubbed the Greferendum (Greek + referendum – need you ask?). It follows hard on the heels of Grexit (Greek exit from the European single currency, duh!) and – uglier still – Grexident. That, of course, is a Grexit that happens by accident – and is looking likelier by the hour.
Portmanteau words are nothing new. Some of the most celebrated examples come from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which contains the celebrated nonsense poem Jabberwocky. While brillig (begin + boiling) and slithy (slimy + lithe) have yet to catch on in a wider context, galumph (gallop + triumph) and chortle (chuckle + snort) have long been parts of our everyday lexicon. There are plenty of others with a less literary lineage, many of which can slip past unrecognised: smog, gerrymandering and brunch, for example. Or how about Oxbridge, cyborg or craptacular? And for fans of unusual beasts (or Napoleon Dynamite) there are always the ligers.
The age of social media has supercharged the production of portmanteau words. Why? Because all you need are a few hundred Twitter followers and your verbal concoction, however exciting or banal, is guaranteed a wider audience. Celebrity culture, with its celebrated pairings, provided an obvious outlet for portmanteau construction: hence Brangelina, Bennifer and TomKat. There are many more, but – mercifully – most have lasted no longer than the partnerships they describe.
In the corporate world, meanwhile, portmanteaux are so common as to be entirely unremarkable: Microsoft (microcomputer + software), for example, or Verizon (veritas + horizon). Then there are Accenture, Amtrak and Intel. Even if your company doesn’t start off with a portmanteau name, corporate activity can give you a second shot at conformity, as attested by Adecco (born from the merger of Adia and Ecco) and Arcelor (Arbed, Arcelaria and Usinor).
All of this suggests that we’ll have plenty more financial portmanteau terms to cope with as the fates of Greece, Europe and the single currency continue to play out. Fine, you might think – at least these neologisms save space (and tedious explanations). But is such snappy shorthand helpful? Not always. Reducing complex issues to catchy soundbites serves to disguise both the complexity of the concepts and the misery of millions. And there’s grounds for confusion too. As Charles Moore has pointed out, a Grexit is a very different prospect from a Brexit. There may well be a risk that the financial lexicon becomes filled with the linguistic equivalent of CDOs – entities that can be shuffled around without anyone quite knowing what’s inside.