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”.