December 26, 2005

Kenzi, Camerair, and other hybrid beasts

The recent outbreak of blends combining famous names — from Brangelina to Scalito — was notable enough to merit inclusion in the New York Times' annual roundup of buzzwords. Though it seems that the faddish blending of celebrity couples is finally on the wane, political portmanteaus continue to emerge on a regular basis. Such name-blends are sometimes coined to underscore the similarity of two politicians, especially if they belong to opposing parties and should ostensibly be on different sides of the ideological fence. In his Dec. 24 column, conservative pundit Robert Novak mentions one recent example:

Republican senators complain that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, liberal lion of the Senate, has taken over effective control of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee because the Republican chairman, Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, defers to him so much. In an era of intense partisanship, Kennedy and Enzi collaborate on spending and regulatory measures before their committee. ... Behind his back, Republican staffers have come to refer to the chairman as Sen. "Kenzi."

Unseemly bipartisanship is apparently enough to trigger a disparaging name-blend in the current Congress (particularly if there is a felicitous intersection of phonetic material, as with /'kɛnədi/ and /'ɛnzi/). Across the Atlantic, Conservative and Labour party faithful similarly express their wariness of bland centrism through onomastic fusions. In the Guardian, Timothy Ash suggests a blend to highlight the shared banality of Tory leader David Cameron and the man he hopes to replace as prime minister, Labour's Tony Blair: Camerair. Ash notes that Nick Cohen of the New Statesman has already beaten him to the punch with a different blend: Blameron. But Ash says he prefers his version since it "hints at the essential mixture of television cameras and hot air." (I'd say that Camerair is also preferable for its cheesy connotations, as it's reminiscent of Camembert.)

Camerair and Blameron have a clear progenitor in British political parlance. When Rab Butler, a Tory, replaced the Labour Party's Hugh Gaitskell as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1950s, the Economist satirized Butler's similarities to his predecessor by imagining a hybrid of the two chancellors named "Mr. Butskell." Conservative-Labour consensus politics then came to be labeled Butskellism.

Though there isn't such a high-profile precursor in U.S. political name-blending, it's not a particularly new phenomenon in this country either. In the April 1934 issue of American Speech, Robert Withington noted a name-blend in a book that had been published the previous year, William Aylott Orton's America in Search of Culture. Orton makes reference to "the Hoolidge era," conflating the presidential terms of Hoover and his predecessor Coolidge. Unlike Kenzi, Camerair, or Butskell, the Hoolidge blend combines members of the same party, suggesting the homogeneity of two successive Republican administrations rather than bipartisan blandness. (Withington also discerns in Hoolidge echoes of hooligan, evoking "a certain ridicule for the chicken-in-the-pot era which stressed material prosperity." This connotation would be missing if Orton had coined a chronologically ordered blend like Coover or Coolver.) There are no doubt earlier name-blends to be found in American political history — after all, one of the most famous political coinages is a blend of man and beast, dating to 1812: Gerrymander, combining Gerry (i.e., Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry) with salamander.

Name-blending also has a durable lineage in literary criticism. In 1888, an article in the Saturday Review belittled the illustrious crank Ignatius Donnelly and his newly published book The Great Cryptogram, which supposedly uncovered the hidden ciphers proving that Shakespeare's plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon. The article, entitled "Ignatius Shacon," took great delight in satirizing Donnelly and his followers, the Shaconians (and their supposed foes, the Bakespearians). Shaconian hasn't had much staying power (except among curators of obscure words, variously deemed grandiloquent, luciferous, or simply worthless). A more famous literary name-blend appeared in a 1908 essay by George Bernard Shaw, in which Shaw conceived of a mythical four-legged creature combining aspects of his colleagues G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. He called it the Chesterbelloc. I wonder what Shaw would have made of our current menagerie of Bennifers, Tomkats, and Vaughnistons?

(And speaking of blends, merry Chrismukkah, or Chrismahanukwanzakah if you prefer.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 26, 2005 11:09 PM