English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

Frankenly speaking

Q: 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?

A: The name has caught on because it’s both catchy and appropriate.

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.

We can almost imagine Mother Nature, like the scientist Victor Frankenstein, looking upon her creation and shouting, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

During the recent storm, it was widely reported that “Frankenstorm” was coined on Oct. 25, 2012, by Jim Cisco, a weather forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as Hurricane Sandy was heading up the coast.

But in fact the term “Frankenstorm” had cropped up a couple of years earlier, in January 2010, when scientists in California were studying the potential impact of a monster storm.

As the Associated Press reported, the scientists at Cal Tech stitched together data from earlier disasters and dubbed their hypothetical model a “Frankenstorm.”

No matter who came up with the name, it’s certain to be resurrected again.

In fact, the combining form “Franken-” has been used for at least several decades to form words for unnatural creations.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is “Frankenfood,” a term that first showed up in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1992. Writing in response to an article about genetically engineered crops, Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College, wrote:

“Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human out of the lab, scientists have been bringing just such good things to life. If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.”

A bit of googling, however, finds several earlier examples, including Franken Berry (1971), a monster-themed cereal, Frankenweenie (1984), an animated short about a boy who brings his dog back to life, and Frankenhooker (1990), a film about a medical-school dropout who raises his girlfriend from the dead.

The OED says the word element “Franken-” is used to form nouns that convey the sense of “genetically modified” or “relating to genetic modification.”

Besides “Frankenfood,” the OED cites the use of terms like “Frankenfruit,” “Frankenplants,” and “Frankenscience.” (Sometimes the words are capitalized and sometimes not.)

Oxford notes an earlier usage, “Frankenstein food,” first used in 1989 and meaning food that’s genetically altered or irradiated.

Now, of course, “Franken-” is used more broadly for things put together in odd, unnatural, or monstrous ways. We’ve seen “Frankenbike” (a bicycle made of scavenged parts), “Frankenbite” (a patched-together sound bite), and “Frankenstrat” (Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, a Stratocaster body plus miscellaneous parts).

A contributor to the American Dialect Society’s discussion group recently quipped that if you were to create a senator from Minnesota out of senatorial body parts, you’d get a “Frankenfranken.”

The OED naturally traces all this to the noun “Frankenstein,” which comes from “the name of Victor Frankenstein, the title-character of Mary Shelley’s romance Frankenstein (1818), who constructed a human monster and endowed it with life.”

Shelley’s book didn’t refer to the creature itself as “Frankenstein.” But the name, according to the OED, is “commonly misused allusively as a typical name for a monster who is a terror to his originator and ends by destroying him.”

The  British Prime Minister William Gladstone was the first to use the name for the monster and not its creator, according to Oxford. In speaking of mules, which are a cross between a donkey and a horse, Gladstone was quoted as saying in 1838, “They really seem like Frankensteins of the animal creation.”

The term has been used that way ever since, as in this OED citation from London’s Daily Telegraph (1971): “There are now growing indications that the Nationalists in South Africa have created a political Frankenstein which is pointing the way to a non-White political revival.”

But what’s really kept the wider used of “Frankenstein” and “Franken-” alive are the many films inspired by Shelley’s book, beginning with the Universal Studios original, Frankenstein (1931), starring Boris Karloff.

After that, the deluge. Sequels included Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and so on for decades to come.

Our favorite adaptation is Mel Brooks’s hilarious Young Frankenstein (1974), in which Gene Wilder, playing a descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, has a dance number with the monster and insists that his name be pronounced FRONK-en-steen.

Check out our books about the English language