30 November 2021

Portmanteau as Pedagogy: A New Design Icebreaker

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By Daniel Riggs

“Amputechture came,

 Philistine praise,

 Bottomless pit of empty names,

 Incarcerated habits poured from the palms,

 Severing the breast,

 Nursing all the young.”

“Meccamputecture,” Mars Volta

Mars Volta and Meccaampecture

Pretentious was not the right word, but it was the word that came to mind when I bought The Mars Volta album Amputechture. I was like, “come on, man.” This was the Mars Volta’s third album, and I am open to their artistic and tricky choices. The previous two releases had been incredible concept albums that I loved (though I know they are impenetrable to most normal people). Sometimes it took a listen or two for the albums to gel in my mind, but they did. This album did not have an overarching narrative but did contain a series of song titles that made me feel like Channing Tatum taking a chemistry test in 21 Jump Street.

           The song I liked the most was the most difficult: Meccamputechture. My initial and attempted pronunciation of the term (never mind the initial reflection) still felt like this was a pretentious bridge too far. But I gave it some room and rooted the internet to provide me with some insight. The title is “Mecca,” “Amputation,” and “Architecture” and alludes to the cycle of destruction leading to creation leading to destruction. Listening again to the song, this felt spot on. So why not just “destruction-creation-destruction” with an e.e. cummings lower case as the title?

           Musicians and artists, in general, are trying to create something unique when they produce their content. The content’s title is the hook and catch and embodies the rest that is to follow. A unique creation might need an individual title. There might not be anything in the current language database that encapsulates the emotions and meaning of the song. Another term might feel like a shoehorning of something that isn’t quite right. Consider portmanteau an artistic precision.

           In military design circles, one of the few US military communities that encourages an artistic impulse, designers should think about using portmanteau. It might serve as an enjoyable and practical means to help re-frame a complex problem and escape the interiority of the doctrinal language that can often bind us to repeat paradigms. If there is any lesson over the last few decades, pressing repeat every deployment cycle does not yield success.

Escaping Interiority and Binding Doctrine

During design practice, facilitators strive to encourage students to consider possibilities, methods, and futures outside of their comfortable military paradigms. Often needed for ill structured problems in complex environments,[i] is an approach or series of techniques beyond a singular prescription. However, we (and me included, boy should I be included) tend to revert to what is known because it is comfortable and safe. But like that mobster guy in Godfather 3 during the helicopter attack, your lucky hat can be your downfall. The obstacle is moving out of your way. The first step, like in alcoholics anonymous, is to recognize you have a problem. The problem often is the constraining organizational interiority thinking.

Interiority thinking is a postmodern concept (let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater now) articulated by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. An organization favoring interiority thinking is bound by their knowledge, reinforcing a linear causality in logic where the future looks much like the present. A future for this organization forecasts itself with the new fashions and technologies of that time. Still, it fails to account for how different paradigms might change their epistemology or even a radically changed telos.

Image 2. Speculating (not predicting) on how people receive news in the future hinting at the internet.

Let’s consider the military and quantum technology. Many articles in notable online security publications think about how quantum technology is going to change warfare. For instance, most of them provide a look at how planners might consider quantum technology in terms of lethality. The reflection on quantum technology is another tool in the tool kit that fits current organizational paradigms, mores, norms, and goals. It is thinking that reflects the familiar and known.

Designers attempt to think outside of familiar and known environments. Designers generate meta-questions beyond the interiority of an organization “into the depths of the unknown” (i.e., the exteriority) of a system. If posed with the idea of quantum technology, the designer is not just looking at a new toy they can put on their GI Joe. They dig deeper. A designer would look at how quantum mechanics might fundamentally change ontologies and epistemologies. They might approach it like writer Neal Stephenson as a speculative enterprise to divine what is possible, not just what is.

           The military needs its design cells and students to break away from the comfortable and produce products that give greater insight than plug and play with operational variables. Often as military types, we can get satisfied with our language (i.e., military thieves cant) to include a myriad of acronyms that strive to produce brevity and everyday speech, but can also be used to in-out group people. Doctrinal Military language is a gatekeeper that can restrict creative thought.

            One guarded term is network. The intelligence community or anyone associated with intelligence activities fiercely guards this term. When used to initially get to a larger conversation, intelligence snobs will smugly and authoritatively shut down discourse. Why? Well, they own the term and the implications of it. But its just a term. It ought to be a means to a novel understanding or discovery, not a sacred cow meant to in and out group people.

Designers need to reflect on the very language we use and not feel worried about this hipster mentality. We need to be able to manipulate the language, turn it, and subvert it. The connotation for these three terms (i.e., manipulate, turn, and subvert) can be damaging but let’s consider them as a physical therapist might. We can manipulate the language is to construct portmanteaus to fit a specific time and space.


Portmanteau is a French word that means suitcase. Lewis Carroll used his portmanteau to ferry two different words (e.g., fork and spoon) into a new vessel (e.g., spork). The suitcase also seems appropriate as a word as it symbolizes travel, which, as Montaigne notes, is a linguistic, anthropological, and intellectual exercise that complement one’s education through comparative study. Portmanteau can help us travel cognitively.

Used famously by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake and Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glassa portmanteau is a word that results from the blending of two words or parts of words, thereby expressing some combining of the meaning of its parts (e.g., Fork + Spoon = spork). The mash-up of words is not just for the sake of being irrelevant or playful, though the Jabberwocky poem is a bit of both. Portmanteau paints vivid mental pictures as in Through the Looking Glass. For visual learners (it turns out people learn. Differently, Horace Mann forgot this), these images can spur creative thought. Like Arthur Rimbaud’s Dérèglement de tous les sens” (“the derangement of all the senses”), portmanteau can undermine the normal functioning of our senses and sense-making to attain visions of the “unknown,” or even the possible by initially awkward linguistic arrangement.

Portmanteau also can serve the practical purpose as shorthand for trends or phenomena that are themselves blended. For instance, the word “smog” developed as a necessary means to describe the air surrounding industrialized cities that reduced visibility. It wasn’t fog and wasn’t smoke but mashed together helpfully describe the phenomena. Whether for practicality or vivid mental pictures, portmanteau allows designers and other creatives to add a unique signature to a specific work that might add an element of interest by attracting the readers’ attention or commanding it if it is genuinely apropos.

Design and Portmanteau

Now to the utility question: why and how is this useful for a military planner or strategist? Strategists aren’t there to invent a Jaberworcky, but the doctrine does call for creative thinking in both Military Design and Joint Thinking. As I have written before, creativity is not just a new hat for Malibu Stacy but a new doll entirely.

Image 3. Lets be honest a malignant designer’s portmanteaus might be like Sid’s creations in Toy Story.

In a design setting, the portmanteau serves to re-frame military, cultural, and social terms in such a way as to avoid being bound by the contextually specific language of a previous conflict. Portmanteau would engender relaxed play and participation because rank and experience aren’t necessarily indicative of creativity. The exercise aims to flatten the starting point for designers and allow for mechanisms to create a willingness to think and be wrong. All participants would take doctrinal words and iteratively keep smashing them together until they formed something organic. These portmanteaus would serve as the specific language for the particular conflict that would produce frames and paradigms that better guide their organization. It will not be just a reflexive look to Thucydides or George Kenan to dust off an old term, add the prefix “Neo” to it, and believe they set a successful blueprint for Great Power Competition (GPC).

           In the design courses I have attended, each has a singular focus on a complex problem. It might be how to produce an organizational shift for the future, compete with an adversary, or address an abstract ideological issue with no easy solution. One means to frame the problem is for facilitators to get each design team member to articulate a metaphor for a particular situation. The portmanteau is intended to do the same and serve as an alternative, not a replacement for this effective pedagogical technique.

           Let’s say the issue for the design class is Unconventional Warfare (UW) and how will the US conduct UW in the 21st century.[ii] Facilitators would task students for two minutes to write every term and concept that are associated with UW that they can think of. They then will bin the results into four groupings: doctrinal terms (e.g., guerilla, underground), associated (e.g., non-standard logistics), cliched/outdated (e.g., Airborne Infiltration, and fictional/aspirational (e.g., Che in the Congo, Graham Greene Novel, etc.).

Image 4. Original creation from author.

Facilitators will then instruct the designers to make multiple AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, and CD combinations. What should result are a series of portmanteaus that could either better articulate an initial hypothesis for current UW or where it might be in a few decades. My brother came up with a few to include “guerillavent” and “ordancenery.” The best of the portmanteaus would guide designers and their facilities for the rest of the design process. If you’re still not convinced, just know that Mensa uses Portmanteau contests to to test intelligence and creativity in describing modern phenomena. Appeal to authority, yes, but that’s all I got. Jaberwocky away!!


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