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World War II Combat Veteran Robert Kotlowitz.

World War Two combat veteran Robert Kotlowitz has written about his experiences in "Before Their Time: A Memoir." 1997 Hard cover and just re-printed this year on Anchor Books. Kotlowitz was part of a platoon that was ordered to charge the German front, an order that killed all but 3 men. His previous books included: The Boardwalk, His Master's Voice, Sea Changes, and Somewhere Else. (THIS CONTINUES INTO THE SECOND HALF OF THE SHOW.)


Other segments from the episode on July 27, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 27, 1999: Interview with Robert Kotlowitz; Interview with Rosemary Clooney; Commentary on portmanteaus.


Date: JULY 27, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072701np.217
Head: Interview with Robert Kotlowitz
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR I'm Terry Gross.

Many people who didn't get to talk to their fathers or grandfathers about serving in World War II are now reading books about the war to help them understand the experience. My guest Robert Kotlowitz is the author of a World War II memoir that recounts his experience as a college student who was drafted into the infantry in 1943.

He's Jewish and was sent to France to fight the Germans. In one battle, nearly his whole platoon was wiped out. He'll describe that experience in a few minutes. Kotlowitz' memoir, "Before Their Time," has just been published in paperback. It was described by Paul Fussell in "The Washington Post" as, "an extraordinarily intelligent memoir."

Kotlowitz is former managing editor of "Harper's" magazine and former director of programming and broadcasting for the New York public TV station WNET. In 1943, after basic training, Kotlowitz was sent with the 26th Division to the French countryside.

ROBERT KOTLOWITZ, WORLD WAR II COMBAT VETERAN; AUTHOR "BEFORE THEIR TIME: A MEMOIR": I was sent to the Alsacen countryside because I had been what was called an ASTP infantryman. In the summer of 1943 about 175,000 18 year olds were drafted out of college and given basic training primarily at infantry centers like Fort Benning where I had been sent.

And after 13 weeks of basic training I was sent off to the University of Maine in (unintelligible) to study engineering along with 1,000 other 18 year olds. And within two months that program folded and lo and behold the Army had 175,000 infantry-trained 18 year olds to fill in divisions that were below strength.

We went to the 26th Infantry Division, which was the New England National Guard, and then shipped to Europe in August of 1944, about eight weeks or so after D-Day.

GROSS: And what was your mission in the countryside?

KOTLOWITZ: The mission in the countryside was to simply rest, bivouac (ph), until the new 9th Army was formed, of which we were to be a core division along with other divisions that were arriving and bivouacing exactly as we were. And we were there for three weeks or so and suddenly the orders were changed and we joined the 3rd Army in Alsace-Lorraine, which was General Patton's Army.

The 3rd Army had broken out of Normandy. It was primarily an armored division group. And those armored divisions had run out of fuel and food and were now stuck in foxholes in Alsace. So, they shipped us out; we relieved the 4th Armored Division, moved into their foxholes and there we were.

GROSS: I want you to describe what it was like for you to be fairly new in the war and living in a foxhole.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the first thing was that it was very scary. I mean, it was not the first time I had lived in a foxhole. Training in the States tended to be as realistic as possible. So, the physical aspect of living in a foxhole and dealing with the daily filth; the ordinariness of it, I was familiar with.

What was new of course, and what was threatening was that we were facing German troops across a no man's land that was perhaps 200 yards wide, if that. It was a very static period in the war, not unlike World War I.

And the tension that built up by just staying in a foxhole and unable to get out unless you were called for night patrol or were sent back for food and ammunition to replenish what you didn't have; that tension was really awful. And as a kid I was really very scared.

GROSS: You describe how the Germans would taunt you through a megaphone. So, what were some of the things they would say?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, they would first tell us that Franklin Roosevelt was a "Chew," as they called it -- "C"-"H"-"E"-"W." And they would tell us that New York had been flattened by German bombers and Seattle wiped out by Japanese bombers and that the Statue of Liberty had been sunk, and, you know, things like that. Things that you knew immediately were hilariously false.

And that had no effect on us at all.

GROSS: How were you given orders to get out of your foxholes and attack the Germans who were about 200 feet away?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you received orders always at night. So, whoever is carrying the orders, usually the squad leader can reach each of the foxholes in which his men are occupying. And he tries to do it before dawn, before there's any light at all so he won't be caught by German snipers and rifleman. And so he can get back to his own foxhole in time to lead whatever has to happen in the morning.

GROSS: And what did you think of the orders?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I knew there were going to be orders like that at some point. I mean, we had been occupying foxholes facing a kind of series of small rises in which we knew the Germans were somehow hidden in their foxholes. And we knew that at some point we would have to try to take those rises because they made a kind of thumb sticking out of the lines.

In other words, if you can imagine two straight lines facing each other with the opposite line bulging towards our direction, that would have been those rises. And we knew that at some point we would have to try to take it because it was too much of a threat to us to have that sitting there.

But when we actually did get the orders, I mean, my mind was not working rationally at all. I was just instantly paralyzed with fear. And by the time we gathered to make the move out I was going through the motions in a kind of automatic robotic way, you know, depending upon my training; trying to stay alert to what the situation was and hoping not to get killed.

GROSS: What happened in the first few seconds when you and the rest of your troop got out of your foxholes?

KOTLOWITZ: What happened was that we formed a diamond formation; that's literally what it was, the shape of it is a diamond. It was the whole platoon. And the leader of the platoon, Francis Gallagher (ph), moved out very quickly to the head of it and we started across that no man's land.

It was still dark, and at the first break of light we were moving up those rises. And the head of the diamond was already at the top and almost over when the Germans had us with machine guns -- they took us with a sweep of machine guns and mortar fire and then rifle fire and grenades.

And our platoon Lieutenant, Francis Gallagher, was shot within 10 seconds of our ascent of those rises. He was shot through the neck, probably the carotid -- both carotid arteries were destroyed at the same time. And he was gone.

The rest of us fell instantly against this assault of so many weapons, and I don't know how many died in the first assault or how many died in the second assault. But the assaults went on for the entire day. And by -- this was six in the morning -- by six in the evening there were only three of us left alive.

Two were wounded, one was unwounded and I was the unwounded one. And I think our survival was based on some kind of luck dealing with the geography of those rises, because we made a small cluster of our own. We were a "B"-"A"-"R" team. My -- the man I shared the foxhole with and my closest buddy were the "B"-"A"-"R" team, the Browning Automatic Rifle.

And somehow we were missed. They were shot, they were wounded, but I was not. So, I don't know why except that I did not move -- I don't even think I breathed for the entire time.

GROSS: How many men were killed?

KOTLOWITZ: I never really got the figure straight, but I would guess it is 37 or 38, maybe even as many as 40.

GROSS: You survived by playing dead for about 12 hours. The Germans were walking around with guns picking off people who appeared to be alive but wounded. How did you play dead for that long?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I just want to say that they were not walking around. We never saw the Germans. They stayed in their foxholes, if that's what they were occupying. And they had formed a semi-circle into which we had walked -- that's exactly what happened.

And they surrounded us on three sides, they did not have to appear. They just had us perfectly. And I survived by just -- I began to count very, very slowly in order to get my breath slowed down so that I would not be breathing in a normal way.

And that's what I did for several hours. And I lay there for 12 hours without moving, and that was it. Hoping, in fact, that I might get a kind of respectable wound that would enable me to concentrate -- you know, a wound in the thigh, the fleshy part of the thigh so that I could concentrate on that and forget about my own anxieties.

I had the feeling that if I were wounded my fear would lift and disappear. I would have gotten it.

GROSS: What position did you fall in and how uncomfortable was it to hold that position for the 12 hours?

KOTLOWITZ: I was sprawled, not flat, but sort of in that position where you're half on your hip and more on your stomach with my face really in the mud -- it was very muddy and had been raining for days before that. And it was not a comfortable position -- unusual position, but there it was. And that's what I stayed with.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Kotlowitz. His World War II memoir is called "Before Their Time." We'll talk more after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Robert Kotlowitz. His latest book is a memoir about his experiences in World War II. It's called "Before Their Time."

As you lay playing dead in the mud you were listening to your buddies die. What did you hear?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the sounds that I heard were the worst sounds I have ever heard, and I can feel that the sounds of war are the worst part of it. I heard young men screaming in terror and pain, calling for their mothers in some cases, which is the saddest call of all. Some of them speaking in a language I had never heard, including my friend who I shared the foxhole with. He was grunting a kind of animal like way all day -- he was violently thirsty. I could not give him any water.

And those sounds were almost worse than the sounds of the machine gun rounds and the grenades and hte mortars and the snipers. It's unbearable to hear. People you have trained with for months and months; to listen to them die in a helpless way and be unable to give them any help at all.

GROSS: How did you know when it was safe for you to get up?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, dusk had really begun to fall. It was really getting dark and it quieted down -- it really got quiet. And for all -- and I thought maybe the Germans had pulled back, having won the day. I mean, no question of that. Not that I thought of it that way, but there was no reason for them to stay anymore.

And I heard English being spoken, and I listend and listened and I realized that there were, I think, three medics scouring that rise where we were looking for survivors so they could take them back to company headquarters and from there to the division hospital.

And so I spoke up. I just said -- I forget what I said. I don't remember what I said in the book, but I did get the attention of one and finally ended up carrying what they considered to be a wounded soldier back to headquarters, and I knew he was dead -- he was dead. And that's how I got out of there.

GROSS: What was the first scene you saw when you picked your head up out of the mud?

KOTLOWITZ: It was a kind of litter of bodies, most of which I knew were dead, and three upright young Americans wearing Red Cross arm bands carrying two stretchers among them.

GROSS: You must have had such conflicting emotions when you emerged, the exhiliration of having survived and the agony of having lost just about everyone who you trained with.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I was in terrible shock. Although part of me was functioning in a very clear way. I mean, I saw everything that I saw; heard everything that I heard and processed it the way I normally did. But my system was in terrible shock.

I no longer was afraid. When I stood up and spoke to the medic and helped a third medic carry this -- the dead GI back. I was no longer afraid. I mean, it was about 500 yards to company headquarters and we made -- I made that little feeling just -- exhalted is not the word, but it's not far from it.

I think I was running on the last of my adrenalene, and that it was getting me to the end. And that when I got to the company headquarters it sort of vanished again and I began to shake and tremble and all the things that you do when you're in shock.

And that's how I felt when I got out of there.

GROSS: You were very angry with your commander, why?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I had the feeling that clearly those orders -- I don't know where the orders came from, whether they came from battalion headquarters, regiment or division, I don't know. But they had not been thought through and the timing was off and our company commander was not part of the action. He was 500 yards behind us. We had no help all day. There was no artillery -- no artillery fire and no troops sent out to help us.

So, of course I was enraged. And I saw him, too.

GROSS: Where did you see him?

KOTLOWITZ: He was in his company tent talking on the phone with the company Master Sargeant in the tent; a Major I had never seen before standing there sort of beating his thigh with a stick -- his own thigh. And there were company commanders from two adjoining companies there. They were probably discussing a counter attack; and two MPs.

And when my company commander saw me he said, let's -- he said -- he didn't quite remember my name. He knew it began with a "K," and he said, "let's get this man the Silver Star. Let's put him in for a Silver Star right away." He ahd no idea what had happened. What I had done, what my part was.

But I could see that he was hysterical. And it was not the first time I had seen him like that. His tendency was to, when he lost control of the situation -- when it slipped out of his hands he got hysterical. And he was hysterical, and I was not far from it myself.

And we had -- he did this monologue about the afternoon, and I knew -- I mean, it was just awful to hear it and to see him and I just said get me out of here. And I left the tent, and one of the medics was going back with a stretcher with that dead GI on it to the divisional hospital. And I hopped on the jeep and was off with them.

GROSS: After the battle one of the people you were introduced to was an infantry historian whose job it was at that point to write up what happened in the battle that you survived. Did you get to read his history, and how did it compare to your memory of what you had lived through?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, his history, as I found it, was an entry of about three lines in the 26th Infantry Division history of the war and it was not specific in any way. In fact, you couldn't tell whehter anything had really happened or not. So it was useless, absolutely useless to me.

GROSS: Did you find other references to that battle in other history books?

KOTLOWITZ: I found one in the U.S. Army Alsace-Lorraine history, which is a line suggesting there was an action -- which was even more meager. And then I found an entry in the 4th Infantry Division of the 26th Division which acknowledge that something had happened and that it was important to the division because it marked such a serious loss.

I later met with a German historian who was a member of the German Army in Berlin. And he found for me an entry in one of their war reports -- daily war reports which matched the experience in terms of hte locatioin and date which in six lines said that the Panzer Division was attacked by Americans six in the morning and by six in the evening they had been totally destroyed.

And after this Lieutenant had translated this for me, he turned to me in a deadpan and said, "it misses the reality, doesn't it?"

GROSS: It must have been strange to read the German account, which would be feeling quite good about the demise of the platoon.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, it was very matter of fact as those day reports tended to be in the Army. It was a way to keep the history of the Army together in brief, you know, presentations. So, it was very bold, but it was very clear that that's what it was.

GROSS: Robert Kotlowitz' World War II memoir, "Before Their Time," has just been published in paperback. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and htis is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Robert Kotlowitz. His World War II memoir, "Before Their Time" has just been published in paperback. It describes his experiences as a college student drafted into the infantry and sent to the French country side to fight the Germans.

He went on to become managing editor of "Harper's" magazine and director of broadcsating at the New York public TV station WNET. When we left off he was telling us about the battle which wiped out most of his platoon.

After being one of three men of your platoon to survive this German attack and the only member of the platoon to suvive unwounded, you were sent to an Army psyciatrist. Did you feel you wanted or needed one at that point?

KOTLOWITZ: Actually, I had no idea, because psychiatry or whatever the words were, were such a new concept for me at that time. I knew I wanted to talk to somebody in some serious way to somebody who get it, who would understand what I was talking about and what I was saying.

If that were the psychiatrist that was fine with me. And I certainly had a chance to talk. I mean, I had a chance to tell that story endless numbers of time. I was given sodium pentahtol, which was known in those days as a truth serum which enabled me to tell the story again in exactly the same way, but at least they, you know, shot me with their newest medicine.

And it was a help to talk to a stranger like that; it really was a help.

GROSS: Why was it helpful to talk to a stranger?

KOTLOWITZ: It was somebody who had no investment in the engagement. And only cared about me at that particular time.

GROSS: Did you want to be sent home for psychiatric reasons or get sent back into the war?

KOTLOWITZ: I did not want to be sent home for any reasons, but I did not want to be sent back to the front either. I wanted some kind of war work that I could be part of and in an effective way. But I certainly did not want to be an infantryman anymore.

GROSS: Where were you sent after the psychiatric treatment?

KOTLOWITZ: I ultimately -- well, right after the psychiatric treatment I was sent to a depot in Nancy (ph) which was not from where we were, in which all the duffle bags of the 26th Infantry Division were stored. And along with three other GIs we guarded those bags on our own. We sort of ran a little commune there.

And that lasted for several weeks. And then ultimately I was transferred to an outfit that did investigating of captured German weapons.

GROSS: And were these assignments more to -- more of what you were hoping for?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, they were assignmetns that got me out that daily slog and threat of being killed -- it got me out of the infantry, yes, it did.

GROSS: The infantry always seems like it's a really -- it's in some ways the worst place to be in a war.



It is because, you know, lives a terribly dangerous life, but they do those missions and they get back -- they get back to a clean bed and a base where some kind of life is going on. If you're in the infantry and you're on the front your day is 24-hours long and you're at full attention for 24 hours even when you're sleeping.

And you go out on -- you go out to sit in a -- on a night patrol in a foxhole midway between the two lines; you're up all night long listening for what is going on in the enemy lines trying to make some rational sense out of it. The infantry life is really awful, and it's awful in a physical sense too.

I mean, it's very hard hard to keep yourself in a reasonable shape in terms of your clothes, your personal cleanliness, you name it, everything. It's very -- it's the toughest life I've ever lived.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Kotlowitz. And he's writtne a World War II memoir called "Before Their Time" that's just been published in paperback.

Reading your book made me think a little of the fact that it must be in a way a little bit perilous to be a very introspective man in a war and in a foxhole. I think for people who have -- I guess what I'm trying to say is I think the more introspective you are the more likely to be self-critical you are, the more likely you are perhaps to feel very vulnerable. And that's not really the way you're supposed to be feeling when you're in a war. I think it's probably better to feel kind of invincible and to feel very strong.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, yes, I think that's probably correct. And as you can imagine, many of those 175,000 ASTP students who were returned to the infantry were not unlike me. And all my real friends in the Army came that group and we shared many emotions including the sensitivity to fear, the introspection that led us to question our own behavior all the time. The inability to get out of ourselves and do just what had to be done the way some men seemed to be slearly able to do. No, I think you're absolutely right.

GROSS: Now, you're Jewish. You were fighting in the French countryide against the Germans. Your dogtags had an "H" for Hebrew on it, and you write in your memoir about how you'd lie in your foxhole and wonder should I maybe take these dogtags off? Say I get captured by the Germans and it says right here I'm Jewish.

KOTLOWITZ: Yes, it was something that for a short period in combat worried me. And I thought, you know, would I be -- if I were captured would I go to an ordinary conventional PW camp or would I be sent to a special camp for Jewish soldiers.

And I finally decided my dogtags were the only thing that really identified me, you know, and that I would wear them the way everybody else wsa wearing them and then I discovered just a year ago that there actually were those camps in which Jewish soldiers who were captured were sent to do kind of slave labor work. And I had no idea that htat was really going on at the time.

GROSS: Do you think in that sense that the Army made a mistake in identifying your religion on your dogtags?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the identification was really intended for burial purposes. I mean, if you were going to be killed during the war hte Army wanted to bury you in a way that was faithful to your faith, assuming you had a faith. But you had to have some kind of identification, you couldn't say I was an "A" for atheist.

And I think -- I think given the time, given 1943 and 1944, there was probably no choice in the matter. I mean, soldiers were identified on their dogtags by religion just as they were by their bloodtype.

GROSS: Did the war make you any more or less religious?

KOTLOWITZ: It certainly did not make me any more religious. It made me -- I don't think it changed me in any essential ways. But I do think it made very alert to my own sense of my life and what I should -- and how I should live it.

And I think I tended far less after this episode and after the whole war to consider compromises in the way I was going to live my life, particularly in the aspects of work.

GROSS: Well, let me say that before the war you were a pre-Med. After the war you became a writer and went into broadcsting.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. And I was an editor -- magazine editor for years too.

GROSS: Right. Right.

KOTLOWITZ: And those were real choices on my part.

GROSS: You think you wouldn't have had the courage to choose writing and editing?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you know, when I was a pre-Med -- I was a 16 year old pre-Med. I didn't know whether I was coming or going, as the saying used to be. And I had no desire to be a doctor. I had vague ambitions to be a writer then, and I was living in a very tight, well-organized community in Baltimore, which is not unlike Philadelphia.

And I wanted out. I wanted out when I was 16, that I knew. Now, if there had not been a war I don't know how I would've resolved my personal life. Because of the war there was no choice. I went back, finished college on the GI Bill; went to New York and lived my life.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Kotlowitz. His World War II memoir is called "Before Their Time." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Robert Kotlowitz, and his latest book is a World War II memoir called "Before Their Time." It's just been published in paperback.

Now, when we read about war we usually read about commraderie, and your book has much about commraderie. But I believe it also has feelings of alienation that are expressed in it. And I wonder if you could talk about that at all, this sense of comraderie and alienation that you experienced during the war.

KOTLOWITZ: You mean alienation from my friends or...

GROSS: ... well, from some of the people in your platoon.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you know, I had very close friends and one of whom was the wounded ones in the platoon whom I still see. But there were other guys in the platoon who were absolutely new to my experience. I mean, people I had never known before, because I had led a very protected life.

And it was difficult for me for the first year to even be able to maintain a conversation with these people. I mean, they had -- we had one guy, for example, who was OK except for the fact that he liked to steal his pal's underwear when he came back from the laundry.

And, you know, we were so self-righteous at 18 and morally driven. And we made a big case out of this until our squad leader said forget it, it's just clohtes for God's sake. Well, I didn't have that tolerance then, and living with all of these strange unexpected people from everywhere living with so many different kinds of religions and beliefs it was behind my comprehension for a while.

But that certainly created a kind of resovoir of tolerance in me which enabled me to live with them, and has served me, I think, well in my life since.

GROSS: Now, the publication of your memoir, and your book was first publishedin hardcover a couple of year's ago, it's just come out in paperback, has coincided with this whole revival of interestin World War II. From "Saving Private Ryan" to the Tom Brokaw bestseller, "The Greatest Generation."

And I'm wondering what you make of that revival of interest and the way it's being treated.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I think most of it began on the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, which was about three years ago. And I think people began to suddenly be aware that the veterans of World War II were beginning to disappear. I mean, considerably more than half of the men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces in the war are dead.

So, the real memory of it is going, and I think people are becoming conscious of that. I've had hundreds of letters about this book, and a significant strand of letters comes from the sons of World War II veterans who had died and who had never spoken to their sons about their experiences. And -- because that's not what you did. It's not what you talked about at the dinner table with your kids.

And they're now deperate to try to find out how their parents, how their father lived, what happened to a GI. And some of them are really obsessed by this.

GROSS: I know you've lectured about the differnce between history and memory. What are some of those differences that have been most significant for you, because I'm sure you've read histories of the war and have also lived with your own memories of it.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, when I sat -- you know, I wrote this book very late after the event. And I wasn't sure that I was ever going to do it. And hte loss of my wife about five year's ago was one of the impulses in the writing of this book, because I did a piece about the last four months of her life -- she died of cancer -- which appeared in "The Sunday Times" magazine.

And that effort sort of released the energy for this book. And I began to work on it, and I thought, you know, this is my story. This is not a history that ever be claimed as a chronolgy of authentic dates and facts; this is what I remember and how I remember it.

And there are people who say to me how did you remember so much after all this time? Well, hte real point is how much I have forgotten. I mean, what is in htis book is everything that I remember. What I've forgotten would fill 20 more volumes.

But the difference between memory and history is the personal thing. I mean, we remember as indivisuals, historians write as though this is the way it was and there was no two ways about it. Well, it doesn't get the human suffering element. It misses the reality, as that German Lieutenant said to me. Most history does.

GROSS: Robert Kotlowitz, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KOTLOWITZ: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Robert Kotlowitz is hte auhtor of the World War II memoir "Before Their Time." It's just been published in paperback.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Robert Kotlowitz
High: My guest Robert Kotlowitz is the author of a World War II memoir that recounts his experience as a college student who was drafted into the infantry in 1943.
Spec: History; Military; War

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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Robert Kotlowitz

Date: JULY 27, 1999
Time: 12:50
Tran: 072702NP.217
Head: Spread of Portmanteau's
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Cineplex," "Simulcast," "dancercise," Frapuccino;" what do these words have in common? They're what Lewis Carrol called "portmanteau words," new words formed by putting together parts of two other words.

Our linguist Geoff Nunberg says the popularity of portmanteau words suggests something about the role of the media in shaping the English language.

GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: In 1811, if you'll cast your mind back, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gary (ph) enacted a redistricting of the state that was highly favorable to the Federalist Party. One of the districts was so oddly shaped in fact that the painter Gilbert Stewart (ph) remarked to a newspaper editor friend that it looked like a salamander, and drew a head and claws on the map to bring out the resemblance.

"More like a 'Garymander,'" said the editor, who published the picture in the next day's edition of the newspaper. That was the origin of the word gerrymander, which somehow acquired a soft "G" over the course of the following century. It had the distinction of being the fist pormanteau word to be coined in America; a word that is formed by blending together the parts of two other words. Actually, it wasn't for another 60 years that the term "pormanteau word" itself would be invented.

It's author was none other than Lewis Carroll, who took it from a name of a large leather suitcase with two hinged compartments. It comes up in "Through the Looking Glass" just after Humpty Dumpty has recited "Jabberwocky," when he's explaining to Alice how he formed the word "Slithy" (ph) out of lithe and slimy.

"It's lie a portmanteau," he says. "There are two meanings packed up into one word." At the time Carroll was writing, though, there were only a few pormanteau words in English: "dumbfound" was one, formed from "dumb" plus "confound." And so was "twirl," formed from "twist" and "swirl."

But until the 20th century this was a decidedly minor way of making new English words. The vogue for portmanteau words really began around the turn of the 20th century with input from several pretty disparate sources. The Soviets made this a favorite way of forming the names of policies and organizations like "Commintern (ph)," from Communist International and "Agitprop (ph)," from agitation and propaganda.

The resolutely anti-communist "Time" magazine was no less creative, coining words like "cinemamogul (ph)." And so was the columnist Walter Winchell, who coined "infanticipating (ph)" for expecting a child.

Most of these examples didn't really catch on, but corporate America was more successful with product names like "peptomint" and "dictaphone." And journalists and publicists had a high time coining words like "smog," from smoke plus fog; "motel," from motor hotel; and "brunch," from breakfast plus lunch.

The process picked up more steam after the war, and it's been at full throttle in recent years. The entertainment people have given us "cineplex," "blaxploitation," "infotainment," "dramedy," and "rockumentary." Politicians have given us "Medicare" and "Reaganomics."

Business people talk about "permatemps," "infopreneurs" and "coopitition." Technology is full of these words, "simulcast," "netiquette," "cybernaut," "immoticon," and all the other terms popular among the people that we call the "digirotti (ph)."

There's no escaping them, even in daily life. Hey, after we finish our dancercise why don't we slip out of our tenkinis (ph) and go out for a frapuccino. "Fantabulous." In the past few generations, English has introduced more portmanteau words than in all the previous generations going to back to Chaucer.

And this doesn't take into consideration all of the portmanteau corporate names that seem to make up half the stocks on the tech indexes: Microsoft, Trinitech, Unisys, Metrocom, Infoseek, Logitech. There are naming consultants who have programs that can grind endless lists of these things.

Why have people given us this population of portmanteau's? In the words of the old punch line, because they can. Since the time that newspaper editor came up with gerrymander, most successful portmanteau words have been coined by journalists, press agents, government agencies, corporations; people with the power to broadcast their coinings via the full apparatus of modern publicity.

What better way to signal your influence than by putting a stamp on the language itself? This helped to explain why portmanteau words are usually so transparent. In this sense, they're the opposite of slang which percolates into the language from cliques and in groups, and which is usually designed to opaque to people who aren't in the know.

You here some Gen Y person saying, "wow, that's whack." You have no idea whether the word means good, bad or expensive. But dancercise, simulcast, frapuccino, they wear their meanings on their shortened sleeves.

Portmanteau words are the soundbites of modern English, calculated to catch on the first time people hear them. And their popularity is an indication of just how much influence the media have had on the language over the last hundred years.

I open a newspaper or drive down the freeway and the word "shagadelic" is staring out at me wherever I look. I guess it's a fitting linguistic note to end the century on.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Geoff Nunberg
High: Our linguist Geoff Nunberg says the popularity of portmanteau words suggests something about the role of the media in shaping the English language.
Spec: Media; Culture; History

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Spread of Portmanteau's
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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