Ben Zimmer: The Fusion of Celebrity Couple Names Into a Single Sobriquet Has Long History

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “Bennifer: A Fusion of Names That Fascinate the Public”:

When news emerged last weekend that the superstar couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got married in a surprise ceremony in Las Vegas, you could be forgiven for wondering if you had accidentally traveled back in time a couple of decades to the golden age of “Bennifer.”

“Bennifer,” as anyone who lived through the early aughts surely recalls, was the blend of “Ben” and “Jennifer” that the tabloids bestowed on the couple in countless headlines. The initial era of “Bennifer” lasted from 2002 to 2004, when the pair broke up, but reverberations were felt for years to come in the entertainment world, as similarly high-powered couples were given their own name-blends. Who could forget “Brangelina” (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), “TomKat” (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes), and “Vaughniston” (Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston), among many others?

When Mr. Affleck moved on to marry Jennifer Garner, the couple was dubbed “Bennifer 2.0” until their divorce in 2018. Then came “BenAna”—Mr. Affleck’s romance with Ana de Armas—before the recent return of the original “Bennifer.”

The fusion of celebrity couple names into a single sobriquet has a surprisingly long history. In the silent film era, frequent co-stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert were romantically linked in their private life as well, but not everyone was a fan of the excessive coverage showered on the power couple. In the August 1928 issue of the magazine Picture Play, a self-described “flapper who is not a Garbo fan” wrote in to complain about what she termed “Gilbo-Garbage.” As film studies scholar Michael Williams described in a 2015 article, the disparaging label of “Gilbo-Garbage” continued to circulate among movie buffs at the time.

Some Hollywood couples have coined their own name-blends. After Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford got married in 1920, they moved into a Beverly Hills mansion that they nicknamed “Pickfair.” And Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball styled their production company “Desilu” in 1950.

Portmanteau names are hardly limited to the entertainment industry. Such name-blends can suggest that two people are seen as inseparable or indistinguishable—as when Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were called “Woodstein” by their colleagues at the Washington Post. In politics, Bill and Hillary Clinton became “Billary” during the 1992 presidential campaign, and in the Trump White House, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were dubbed “Javanka.”

Nor is the phenomenon a new one. As long ago as the early 1930s, Calvin Coolidge and his presidential successor Herbert Hoover were sometimes combined into “Coover” or “Hoolidge.” In the U.K. in the 1950s, the Economist merged two successive Chancellors of the Exchequer, the Labour Party’s Hugh Gaitskell and the Conservative Party’s Rab Butler, into one satirical figure known as “Mr. Butskell,” with wishy-washy centrist politics dubbed “Butskellism.”

Even so, “Bennifer” kicked the name-blending practice into high gear. But who was responsible for coming up with that name in the first place? Last year, the filmmaker Kevin Smith, who directed the stars in “Jersey Girl,” took credit on Twitter. “It’s a name I first gave the kids during ‘Jersey Girl’ preproduction, before the world found out they were dating,” he wrote.

Mr. Smith claims he dropped the “Bennifer” name in a New York Times interview, and “shortly thereafter, it appeared in the article and then entered the vernacular.” He may be misremembering this part: “Bennifer” started showing up in gossip columns as early as July 2002, but Mr. Smith wasn’t quoted as using it until interviews he gave the following year.

Details of the origin story may be sketchy 20 years on, but “Bennifer” remains a sturdy relic of the public’s fascination with celebrity couples and penchant for playful nicknames.

Ben Zimmer is a Wall Street Journal columnist, linguist, lexicographer, and all-around word nut.

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