silly or serious? blended words can be a challenge to tell which

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(Estimated reading time: 3 minutes)

There are many types of activities that go into making a dictionary. First to come to mind might be writing all the definitions, and certainly that’s what most people are looking for when they consult a dictionary. For a dictionary like Mixed Blessings that features quotations showing how the words have been used in real life, these quotes are another big area of interest. A standard definition is a pretty good way of explaining what a word means, but there’s nothing quite like reading real-world examples of usage in order to pick up on nuances and undertones that can’t be captured in a definition.

But an activity that might escape notice is how dictionary entries are sometimes split up into multiple numbered parts, each part with its own meaning and definition. So in the sample entry shown below for “cathormon,” there are two numbered meanings (or, as we say in the lexicographical trade, there are two numbered senses).

Sense #1 in the entry for cathormon means a person who has connections to both the Catholic Church and to the Mormon Church. As you can also see in the etymology in square brackets at the beginning of the entry, the word “cathormon” itself is a blend (or portmanteau) of the words Catholic and Mormon.

Sense #2 for cathormon still combines the words Catholic and Mormon, but here the combo has a different meaning. Now it’s a jokey wordplay or a humorous punchline. If you look at the quotations for this meaning, the playfulness and irreverence are palpable. You can easily imagine the winks and chuckles that might have been going on while the people were talking and tweeting.

As I gather quotations for “cathormon” and other words, I’m constantly asking myself, how is this word being used? Is it being used to refer to a person? Or is it more of a jokey wordplay? And I group the quotations according to the way that people are using the terms. For “cathormon” there appear to be two main meanings: a person with connections to both churches, and a play on words. Other words, such as bapticostal (Baptist + Pentecostal), jubu (Jew + Buddhist), and sushi (Sunni + Shi‘ite) can have half a dozen or more different and distinct meanings attached to them. There are even cases when I will write a letter or send an email to someone who has used one of these terms, and I basically ask them, “What did you mean when you said this?” Sometimes it takes some good old-fashioned detective work to pin down a term’s meaning!

Something else you might find worthy of note in this sample entry for “cathormon” are the timelines shown for each numbered sense. These timelines show when the quotations for each meaning occurred and can give you an idea of whether the word has been more popular at certain times or others. The gray background of the timeline is taller when there were more quotations and is shorter when there were fewer or no quotations. What do you think of the timelines? If you have comments or questions about any aspect of these words or the project, feel free to let me know about it in the comments or via email to

Here are some words I’ve been researching lately:

  • agnostipalian (agnostic + Episcopalian)
  • baptipresbycostal (Baptist + Presbyterian + Pentecostal)
  • buddhaversalist (Buddhist + universalist)
  • bufi (Buddhist + Sufi)
  • mooish (Muslim + Jewish)