Q&A: Port of call vs point of call

Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week we talk about what happens when we confuse and mix idioms.

Q: Hi AWC, I hear people say ‘first point of call' a lot these days and it bugs me. Is that actually correct usage? I'm wondering if perhaps I'm the one who is misinformed.
A: Okay, well will be pleased to know she’s not misinformed. This is one of those mash-ups of two well-known idioms, “first port of call” and “first point of contact”. Generally, the first one would refer to a place and the second one a person or people.

Q: Do you have to be on a boat to have a first port of call?
A: It certainly originated in the days of sailing ships and ports. But now it could just as easily be a town nowhere near the sea, or an airport, etc. “Port” has become a catch-all for any location you are set to visit.

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. And point of contact is clearly a person or department you’d want to get in touch with, yes?
A: Sure is. The issue is having is that people have merged two phrases over time so that it’s now a Frankenstein-esque mix. We spoke about a similar situation previously, with our chat about people saying “hone in the target”.

Q: So I guess the million dollar question is whether people are mashing it up to replace “port of call” or “point of contact”.
A: That’s more of a $14.95 question than a million dollar one. They generally use it in place of “point of contact”, so you’ll hear people talk about the SES being the “first point of call” for flood-affected residents, etc. It’s hard to label this usage completely incorrect, because language is constantly evolving, but she is right to bristle when she sees it – as the original phrase would work just as well.

Q: If only there was a word to describe this mixing of idioms. Wait… surely not?
A: It’s your lucky day. Blending idioms or figures of speech erroneously is becoming known as a MALAPHOR. One of the best examples is “let’s burn that bridge when we come to it” – a mash-up of “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” and “burn your bridges”. They can be quite hilarious. The term “malaphor” is itself a portmanteau of “malapropism” and “metaphor”.

Q: Don’t you mean “pointmanteau”? Hahahaa – seriously, I’m hilarious.
A: Totally. Remember a “portmanteau” (originally coined by Lewis Carroll) is basically the single-word equivalent of a malaphor – where you grab a portion of one word and a portion of another and smash it together to create a new one. Examples include “breathalyzer”, “Bollywood”, “televangelist”, “Brangelina”, “mockumentary”, “advertorial”, “bromance” or “brunch”. Companies love using portmanteaus too: Microsoft, Caltex, Pinterest, FedEx, Groupon etc…

Q: Very enlightening. But I’ve got red squiggly lines appearing under “malaphor” every time you say it. Is it actually a real word?
A: It’s a widely accepted term, but hasn’t made it to all the dictionaries yet.

Q: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
A: Indeed. So, back to the question – yes people are confusing two sayings, but it’s also happening everywhere in the English language, and we’ll probably need to learn to “chillax” about it.

Q: “Chillax” being a portmanteau of course!
A: Precisely. And here endeth today’s “infotainment”.

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