The Rise of the Frankenwords

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A Frankenword is a special kind of portmanteau we don't talk about all that much, but given Sandy (dubbed early on a "Frankenstorm"),  it is again a topic of conversation, at least among certain semantically driven people. Frankenword even has a Wiktionary page, which means something!

A Frankenword is, essentially, a blending of the word Frankenstein and another word in portmanteau fashion, to create a new word with a blended meaning. A few Frankenwords: Frankenfood (first used in 1992 to mean "genetically engineered food"); Frankenfish (an ugly, possibly genetically modified fish); Frankenplant (like the fish, but a plant); Frankenweenie (this is a movie currently at theaters maybe near you, if you haven't been left powerless by Frankenstorm Sandy; it is about a Frankenstein-dog); and so on.

Geoffrey Pullum writes at Lingua Franca, "These words like Frankenstorm and Frankenweenie are themselves formed via the sort of unnatural combination of parts that the franken-part alludes to," something that makes them Frankenwords in both meaning and makeup. Another Frankenword he mentions: "Eddie Van Halen plays a garishly decorated guitar put together promiscuously out of cannibalized Fender Stratocaster body and neck parts, a Gibson pickup, and a Floyd Rose locking vibrato arm. It is known as the Frankenstrat." But Pullum points out that a word need not have Franken in it to be a Frankenword; helicopter and words that end with -gate tacked on (Climategate), for instance, are created through similar means, "crudely sewn together from ill-matched bits," he writes.

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Back in 2010 Jan Freeman wrote in the Boston Globe that marathon was a Frankenword, as was talkathon, because, "Not only did they corrupt native English words by adding a Greek ending, but (in this case) they butchered the Greek word too, lopping off a chunk of it that wasn’t a suffix at all." While this Frankenwordization would have at one point been called barbaric; now it's commonplace—"what’s “acceptable” has become a matter of taste — or age." On the plus side, Freeman points out, any cringeworthy Frankenwords probably won't last too long; we're in a time when "the air is thicker than ever with such verbal fireflies, though most will glow only briefly."

Today the Grammarphobia blog takes up the Frankentopic, as Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman answer a reader question: "I keep hearing the recent weather disaster on the East Coast referred to as 'Frankenstorm.' I assume this just means it was a monster storm. But how does a usage like that get started and spread so fast?"

Their response: "The name has caught on because it’s both catchy and appropriate" (even if some members of the media—FrankenCNN—weren't so keen on it). Like a good Frankenword, this is so in meaning and also in the word itself. As they write, "Not only was this a monstrous storm, but like Frankenstein’s monster it was cobbled together from disparate parts—an Atlantic hurricane moving up from the tropics, a cold front from the west, a blast of arctic air from the north, and high tides."

For those with an interest in coinages, Frankenstorm has been attributed with regard to Sandy to Jim Cisco, NOAA weather forecaster, who used it on October 25, 2012, though Cal Tech scientists dubbed their hypothetical model "a Frankenstorm" as well, back in 2010. "No matter who came up with the name, it’s certain to be resurrected again," write O'Conner and Kellerman. That's—gulp—what people are saying. Frankenyikes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.