This week, Syfy announced that there will be a sequel to Sharknado, the over-the-top made-for-TV movie that generated two tweets for every three people who watched it last week. Since Twitter comprised the movie’s biggest fan club, it made sense that Syfy put out a call for subtitles via that medium:
The tongue-in-cheek suggestions came fast and furious: Squidquake. Sharknobyl. Sharknado vs. Mansquito (the latter chimera presumably being a human-mosquito hybrid). They were confirmation, as though we needed it, that this is the summer of the neolexic portmanteau.
As Simon Akam explained in Slate in March, a neolexic portmanteau (or, more simply, adjoinage), is a combination of two or more existing “root words … brutally slammed together with cavalier lack of wit.” Commonly used examples include “bicurious,” “bridezilla,” and “mansplain.” Unlike puns, which combine similar-sounding words to suggest new meanings (like “bromance,” an affectionate relationship between bros), neolexic portmanteaus combine words that sound nothing alike to suggest a new concept: “bride” and “Godzilla” to suggest a narcissistic fiancée, or “man” and “explain” to describe sexist condescension.
America did not heed Akam’s call to fight back against the adjoinage. Instead, two of this summer’s biggest media phenomena are neolexic portmanteaus: the cronut, Dominique Ansel’s blockbuster deep-fried pastry, and Sharknado. “The Internet is always a sucker, it seems, for a ridiculous-sounding hybrid,” as the Hollywood Reporter put it earlier this week in the first piece to note the similarity between the two memes. The Reporter did not, however, note the linguistic similarity between the cronut and Sharknado. (Because a colleague challenged my assertion that “cronut” is indeed an adjoinage, I’ll spell it out: croissant is properly pronounced CRHAW-sahn, while donut is pronounced DOH-nut. There is no lyrical overlap between the two. If you wanted to describe an awesome croissant as croissome, that would be a pun; “cronut” is merely a Frankenstein’s monster of pastry syllables.)
The cronut and Sharknado (and Twitter’s jokey Sharknado sequel suggestions) seem to be a new kind of neolexic portmanteau—not in the sense that they’re any more clever than “bridezilla” or “feminazi,” but in the sense that their tone is different. The adjoinages Akam pointed to in March are typically used straightforwardly: People sincerely describe their wedding-obsessed friends as bridezillas, and mansplainers accuse women of being feminazis (and vice versa) in all seriousness. Cronut, by contrast, cannot be taken seriously, and half the reason Sharknado garnered so much attention online was that its title is self-consciously absurd. We seem to be entering a new era of neolexic portmanteaus, one in which disparate words are slapped together not for any meaningful reason, but for comic effect. It is precisely because shark and tornado sound nothing alike that Sharknado is funny. I submit that a porcine sequel called Boarnado would not elicit nearly as much glee from the Twitterati.
There is one obvious advantage to the ironic neolexic portmanteau, which is that it’s untouchable. To create a pun like croissome or boarnado is to make oneself vulnerable by implying a certain pride in one’s wit (and French). There is no inherent pride in an ironic neolexic portmanteau—it’s funny because it’s not clever, and it has already acknowledged its own lack of cleverness. This means that you can’t effectively make fun of it. The ironic adjoinadge is a nifty trick and a convenient form of comic armor, one I suspect we’ll see more of until everyone gets so sick of neolexic portmanteaus that we’re forced to come up with a new way of expressing sarcastic aloofness. I plan on keeping my distance from Twitter until the cronado subsides.