Gestalt, meet 2021



  1. 1. a large trunk or suitcase, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts.
  2. 2. a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel (from ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’) or brunch (from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’).

I learned two new words in the past year or so, and I adore them both. The first is “interrobang”, which (just in case you’re not familiar with this delightful coinage) is the name for the symbol “?!”, an expression I find rather endearing. It’s a way of questioning and emphasizing simultaneously, changing the nature of the preceding sentence to add inflection. The duality of the interrobang is evidenced within its own nomenclature: it’s a punctuational portmanteau (though not new, that’s another word I love!) combining the interrogative nature of the question mark and the exclamatory essence of the exclamation point, and it works so well to communicate the commingling of two terminal punctuation denotations. It’s like a diacritical mark but acts on an entire idea rather than a single letter, embellishing the ability of the author to emote more specifically, much like the use of italics or capital letters can change the meaning of a sentence. (There’s the iconic example of how emphasis on different words can affect the meaning of a sentence, as in saying “I never said she ate my banana” seven different times with emphasis placed on a different word each time to elicit seven discrete meanings.)

I’m calling 2021 “The Year of the Superlative Interrobang” because it presents the most exclamatory question mark I can imagine in terms of what the coming months will bring. The number “21” even visually resembles the symbolic mashup of the interrobang, does it not?!

The other word that was brand new to me this year is “satisfice”. Some people will likely decry the validity of this newfangled notion of a verb, but I quite like it. It expresses the idea that one must settle for less than what’s excellent but won’t settle for less than what’s reasonably adequate. It’s like shopping for a book with the knowledge that you won’t be able to have a new copy, or even one in “very good” or “good” condition; you have only “acceptable” options available, and you have to pick amongst those. This, too, feels very on-theme for 2021: we must sacrifice so much to eke out a satisfactory state of existence. It’s not what we’d like, but it’s enough. We miss what we can’t have and do but we’re grateful that what we can have and do is sufficient. It’s not good, but it’s good enough.

Looking ahead, I envision that life in the coming years will be a portmanteau of sorts itself, one in which our lives the way they were almost exactly a calendar year ago will combine with the way our lives have been during the intervening year to produce something that resembles both versions of reality somewhat but never again completely. We’ll go back to some of the old ways but incorporate many of the new (or maybe we’ll go back to many of the old ways but incorporate some of the new…the proportions will likely differ from person to person and family to family). Everyone will fold “life before” and “life during” together like two halves of a briefcase that they will carry as they travel through “life after”, however that may look after this satisficing interrobang of a year, and pull from it what and when they will. Just as these new words are enriched by virtue of the fact that they integrate two separate concepts into one, so will the vista of our lifescape serve as a reminder that, like so very many aspects of this world, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


You know what? I’m going to go one step further and create a list of my own portmanteaux, beginning with one that includes the Gestalt concept of a whole exceeding the sum of its components. Take axiomatic mathematical theory and fuse it with existentialism, and I give you “axiostentialism”. Forgive me, Aristotle.

2 thoughts on “Gestalt, meet 2021

  1. Ellen Jones

    All of this makes me think of the new term I recently learned (why yes, from you): Lamination! The folding-in is a laborious process, and the end result isn’t always obvious (or predictable, if the baking shows I watch are any indication), but daaaang if all of that work and folding don’t magically transform into a delicious pastry, way more multidimensional than the sum of its parts! My portmanteau is taking the shape of a big beautiful croissant. (Wait…we laminate those, right ?! ?! ?! Celiacs should not attempt baking metaphors. )


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