Scientific coathangers

16 April 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

Coathangers should have hooks at the top, just like blog posts.

As well as being the French word for "coathanger", porte-manteau is used in English to mean a word built using bits of other words (though we spell it portmanteau). A classic example is "brunch" - not quite breakfast, not quite lunch.

As it happens, Manteau is also the French word for "mantle" in geology. The mantle is Earth's layers, between the core and the crust. So you can see how the word for "coat" and "layer" are the same. However, not all layers are called manteau - the general term is couche (which means a baby's "nappy" - go figure).

While we're on the topic, the word Manteau features two very tricky points of French pronunciation, too: an sounds like the start of the word "aunt" in a posh British accent, and eau, which is helpfully pronounced just like the letter o (in French). On top of that, its plural is formed by adding a silent x: manteaux. You're welcome.

For a long time, I used to think the word portmanteau meant a word with a different word's meaning hooked onto it. But that's just a misnomer (if the extra meaning is wrong) , or a synonym (if it's right).

My favourite portmanteau of all is Schniposa, a German term meaning Schnitzel mit Pommes und Salat ("schnitzel with chips and salad"). I like it, partly because it's fun to say out loud, and because I quite like that there is a single word for a three-part dish. It's even in the dictionary (thanks to @geschictenpost for pointing that out). I find there's something quite elegant about it. In fact, German uses portmanteaux (or is it portmanteaus?) like this quite often. Another example I like is the word for "apprentice", which is Azubi. Short for Auszubildende, it literally means "the person who is to be trained".


SchniPoSa: definitely not for brunch. Credit: Danijela Grgic. Licence: CC-BY-SA - For more on Schnitzel, check out the "Schnitzel Fans" blog.


Scientific language often uses quite long and complicated expressions, too. So it's no surprise to find portmanteaux cropping here, too. For instance, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA is usually just called "FermiLab". Also in physics, the antimatter partner of the electron is called the "positron", as in "positive electron", because it has positive electric charge. Not to be confused with the proton, however!

Even this very website is called Scilogs, which is short for "science blogs". Going one step further, "blog" is a shortening of "weblog", which is itself a compound noun , made from "web" and "log", as in "to log an entry" like captains on ships, or as in a diary.

[Aside: a "compound noun" is not the same thing as a portmanteau, though you could argue that porte-manteau in French is a compound noun.]

Henrietta Lacks: not a coathanger. Copyright unknown, use here believed to be fair. Click for source.

Another famous scientific portmanteau, this time from biology, is "HeLa". This one is short for Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Some of her cells were taken by doctors to further research into tumours. The descendants of those cells are still in use today and are known as "HeLa" cells. The case of Henrietta Lacks is one of the most important examples of bioethical controversies in the history of science, and it is still unfolding.

I have only given a few examples of portmanteaux here, but there must be plenty more, especially in the world of science and technology. What are your favourites?


Over to you:

  • What are your favourite scientific portmanteaus? The Wikipedia list of portmanteaux is a bit short for the "science" category, although (perhaps unsurprisingly) the "technology" list is quite long.
  • Can you create a clever portmanteau to describe science portmanteaux, jargon, etc? Something like scicabulary, vocabulaboratory, portmantology... only better?
  • Are there any fun portmanteaux in other languages?


Credit where it's due:

By the way, I owe the inspiration for this post to the lovely Marianne, who posted this link (which features sporks, so what's not to like?!) to my Facebook page this morning. Thanks Maz!

6 Responses to “Scientific coathangers”

  1. Laura Reply | Permalink

    Two that spring to mind: rotovap/rotavap (rotary evaporator) and redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for those Laura - for those of you who don't know, a rotary evaporator is a piece of laboratory equipment for spinning bottles of liquids around very fast, so that they become gasses. "Redox" reactions involve chemicals gaining or losing electrons, the classic example being the process of iron becoming rusty.

  2. Peter Harrison Reply | Permalink

    Japanese is also great for portmanteaux, and often in the style of the Schniposa example. A computer in Japanese is a コンピューター (konpyuta) as it's a borrowed word. So we could guess that "personal computer" would be パーソナルコンピューター (pasonarukonpyuta). But almost nobody ever says that. Instead the Japanese often say パソコン (pasokon). That would be like us calling it a "perscom". Another example is a digital camera, which is often called a デジカメ (dejikame), like us calling it a digicam.

    Some have even been invented online, for things like Twitter! I tried to explain a few to people here:

    I'm sure there are science examples I come across but my tired brain isn't coming up with any right now. I'll keep my eyes open when I hit the lab!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Those are some neat examples, Peter - and I enjoyed your blog about using Twitter to practice foreign languages!

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