We're following a debate raging in San Francisco with an eye turned to its linguistic ramifications as much as its cultural ones.
A group of advocates is pushing for a local ban on circumcisions on all males younger than 18, calling the procedure cruel and unnecessary. They call themselves "intactivists."
How great is that name?
The proposal, which will go before Bay Area voters in November, is stirring passionate discussions about religious and cultural freedoms, parental boundaries and the health consequences of an age-old tradition. Weighty stuff. But we're most intrigued by intactivist. A truly inspired portmanteau, if ever there was one.
A portmanteau is a word formed by blending two or more words. Blog, smog, staycation, bromance, chillax. (A portmanteau is also a suitcase. Most sources credit author Lewis Carroll with giving new meaning to the word when Humpty Dumpty said to Alice in "Through the Looking-Glass": "You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.")
"Chinglish," a comedy opening soon at the Goodman about an American attempting to do business in China, is a portmanteau. As is "Spanglish," an Adam Sandler comedy, and "Franglish," which is not yet a movie or play but is likely to star Gerard Depardieu if it ever gets optioned.
Internet is actually a portmanteau (international + network), according to a few portmanteau web sites we happened upon. As are glitz (glamour + ritz), smash (smack + mash) and bionic (biology + electronic).
Pass or fail come November, the circumcision proposal has already succeeded in elevating intactivists to the ranks of some pretty lofty company — lactivists (breastfeeding activists), advocists (advocate activists) and macktivists, defined by Urban Dictionary as folks who attend rallies, marches or other activist-related events in the hopes of meeting attractive activists.
Revisiting the "r" word: We heard from several readers last week in response to the column about a campaign to end the use of "retard" as a derogatory term. Here are portions of two of the more thoughtful notes.
"As the mother of a disabled son, I have a slightly different perspective. As a high school student, I used the word freely. It was commonplace, and I never thought about the implications of using it. At that time, in the '60s and '70s, the special needs students were kept separate from the rest of the student body, so I never knew anyone who was disabled, and never made the connection between my words and a specific person. Now when I hear someone use it in such a derogatory manner, it hurts. It hurts my feelings as it would if any of my children were insulted. It would never dawn on my son that someone would not want to be his friend, so it seems even worse since he only thinks the best of people. I work as a freelance choreographer with high school students all over the country. If someone uses that word I stop the rehearsal, sit everyone down ask the group how many of them know someone — a relative, a neighbor, a classmate — who is disabled. Usually half the group puts their hands up, and it is a powerful lesson about how many people can be hurt by the use of a single word."
"We have a 3 ½ year old son who is developmentally delayed. I agree that the word 'retarded' is a perfectly acceptable derivative of Latin meaning to impede or slow down or delay. Given that, I would have no problem saying that my son is retarded. Unfortunately, the use and the meaning of the word has changed to mean not just stupid, but not worthy. Not worthy of our time, consideration or love. Given the current definition, my son is not retarded and far from it. Most people don't realize the change in the definition until it hits close to home, as it has with us. Look up the so-called recent offenders of the 'r' word and I hope you would agree that what they are describing as retarded could not possibly describe my son or any other human being."
Do you have a favorite portmanteau? Email Words Work at email@example.com.