Yesterday’s posting introduced the term portmanteau word, which Lewis Carroll created as a humorous way to describe the ‘folding up’ of two words into one, as when English glitter plus literati becomes glitterati, or entertainment plus education becomes, alas, edutainment. Such a combining of words needn’t be intentional or intentionally humorous, but American political activist Sarah Palin’s apparently unintentional combining of refute and repudiate into refudiate earlier this year did stir derisive humor in people of the opposite political persuasion. (A cynic suspects that the deriders would have treated a similar blunder by one of their own as if it were a clever creation in the spirit of those made by Lewis Carroll.)

Linguists, who are known to enjoy playing with words and whom we trust to remain above political pettiness, call the result of word combining a blend in English and a cruce ‘crossing’ in Spanish. One cruce is Spanish bronco, which seems to have arisen from a blending of Latin broccus ‘sharp object’ (compare Spanish broca ‘drill bit’) and truncus, the predecessor of tronco/trunk, into Vulgar Latin *bruncus. Catalan linguist Joan [= Spanish Juan and not English Joan] Corominas wrote that the resulting Spanish bronco seems to have meant originally ‘a piece of a cut-off branch’ and ‘a knot in a piece of wood.’ Akin to the way in which English can describe a problem that is difficult to deal with as knotty, Spanish speakers in New Mexico began using bronco to describe ‘a wild or uncontrollable horse.’ That is the sense in which English has borrowed bronco, but in Spanish the word has additional meanings. With reference to a musical instrument it means ‘producing a harsh, unpleasant sound,’ and with reference to a person’s behavior ‘rough, rude, unmannerly.’ As a noun, the feminine bronca is ‘a reprimand, a telling off,’ as well as ‘a noisy dispute’ in which we can imagine the parties behaving like bucking broncos.

© 2010 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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