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AFFLUENT / INFLUENZA
FRIEND / ENEMY
SHARK / TORNADO
DRAMA / COMEDY
SEX / EXPERT
Researchers Constantine Lignos and Hilary Prichard conducted a study on blends, which combine two words to form a new one, at the University of Pennsylvania. They asked participants to rate dozens of blends on a five-point scale and discovered that people preferred the ones rated most natural and understandable. Here’s what they found.
WAFFLE / DONUT
FRIENDS / FAMILY
COOPERATION / COMPETITION
SNOW / SEQUESTER
DINNER / LUNCH
SWEATER / JACKET
1 COMPLETION PROBABILITY
The word part affluen will autocomplete in people’s minds to a form of affluence. No other common words begin that way, so the blend’s meaning can be processed faster. W is likely to make one think of words like woman.
If the two words that make up a blend are mentally associated with each other, it works better. When asked to associate a word with the prompt “enemy,” people will say “friend” 30% of the time; “family” elicits “friend” just 11% of the time.
3 FUN FACTOR
Though hard to quantify, some blends get a boost because they’re fun or tied to a moment in pop culture, the way sharknado was to the eponymous 2013 made-for-TV movie.
Linguists say that for a neologism to survive, it needs to be applicable to different situations; dramedies are hitting theaters all the time, while snowquester referred to a specific storm in Washington, D.C.
Lignos says the most natural blends sound just like one of the root words. Bromance contains a big chunk of both root words. Blends like dunch or linner, which retain only one sound from the first root word, tend to be rated as unnatural.
It’s easier to infer the meaning of the blend if it describes a common thing or phenomenon that people encounter in real life.
SOURCES: UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA FREE ASSOCIATION NORMS; SUBTLEX-U.S. WORD FREQUENCY CORPUS; ENGLISH LEXICON PROJECT
This appears in the July 06, 2015 issue of TIME.