by

Frankenwords

Image from Gawker.com

Frankenstorm, they called it: a huge, ugly, shambling monster of a storm formed by unnatural melding of a hurricane from the southeast and a monstrous cold-air mass oozing down from the north. In the week of Hallowe’en this unholy thing staggered toward us, and we fled like frightened villagers.

As Frankenstorm approached, health and safety officers canceled classes and closed campuses. Brown University was closed on Monday, and during that afternoon a horror-film storm began to buffet the apartment block where I live.

Meanwhile, Frankenweenie was showing down at the Providence Place Cineplex 16. (Personally, given 16 choices, I think I might rank an animated horror movie about bringing a dog back from the dead at about No. 16, but many people love Tim Burton’s whimsical efforts. I’m sure it is packing them in.)

These words like Frankenstorm and Frankenweenie are themselves formed via the sort of unnatural combination of parts that the franken- part alludes to. We need a technical term for them, and I am not sure there is one. I suggest we call them frankenwords.

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 perhaps the most serious and widely used frankenword containing franken- in it is surely frankenfood. Food activists, people who would rather go up to the castle to see what Dr Frankenstein had created than eat a genetically modified ear of corn, refer to GM foods with that term. It seems to imply that GM crops are created on a slab by an evil scientist rather than grown in the natural way on an honest-to-god farm.

Of course, franken- is not necessary in a frankenword: I intend the term to connote the more general property of being made not by grafting of etymologically genuine parts with independent meanings but by bolting together pieces ripped from living words ignoring the morphological joints.

Helicopters were given their name via a combination of the Greek combining forms helico- (“of or similar to a helix,” as in helicobacter) and pter (“wing,” as in pterosaur “winged lizard”). But the name for dedicated helicopter landing stations was constructed by combining the heli- chunk of helicopter with the -port root to make heliport. That formation is not etymologically licensed: heli- is not a part of the internal structure of helicopter. So heliport is a frankenword, crudely sewn together from ill-matched bits, though (as far as I know) without any deliberate playful intent.

The -gate words offer a substantial number of further examples with much more deliberate creation processes. The -gate ending is not really a suffix meaning “scandal with attempted cover-up.” It’s not a suffix at all in the morphological sense (though the Oxford English Dictionary accords it that title). It’s just the last four letters of the name of the office complex where Nixon’s White House plumbers performed the break-in that began his undoing. But numerous other frankenwords were subsequently coined to denote scandals (often by William Safire, who had worked for Nixon, and seemed to be making light of Watergate by coining analogous names for later and lesser scandals). The -gate sequence managed to hint at scandal via a purely orthographic association.

Wikipedia has compiled a list of scandals named with -gate frankenwords. I won’t repeat it here, but note that one of the less-known scandals was called Shawinigate This was a 1999 scandal in Canada, when Jean Chrétien, then the prime minister, was alleged to have profited from some real estate deals in his home constituency of Shawinigan, Quebec. So the Shawini- part is no more a genuine morphological unit than the -gate part. This is a classic frankenword, stitched together from recycled letter strings.

Frankenword formation is a playful rather than natural process (see this paper for an academic treatment). It involves playing around with word parts. Notice, for example, how the -teria of cafeteria is used to form cutesy retailer names. The playfulness is seen in the unusual degree of variation: for words ending in -e you follow the cafeteria model and simply stick -teria on the end (as in Caketeria); and for words ending in a consonant you stick -eteria on the end (Washeteria); and for words ending in -et, to avoid -etet-, you just use -eria (Basketeria).

Interestingly, many frankenwords actually caught on, avoiding the early death of many playful coinages. They may not have complied with the Dragon’s Den Constraint, but they seem to have come close enough to satisfying Allan Metcalf’s desideratum that a viable word should look like part of the lexicographical furniture.

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