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onestopenglish.com

New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

frankenword noun [C] /frknwd/
a word formed by combining two (or more) parts of other words

'Words I particularly detest are those Frankenwords that combine two others to make one horrific abomination Now we are treated to new monstrous creations, like: edutainment, my "favorite" frankenword, a cross-breeding of education and entertainment.'
(The Daily Beacon, 30th August 1996)

The term frankenword was coined in the mid-nineties in the context of humorous observation of the growing number of neologisms formed by cannibalising chunks of existing words. Frankenwords were appearing in all aspects of late twentieth century life, with terms like docudrama and docusoap (documentary and drama/soap) occurring on television, netiquette (Internet and etiquette) in the virtual world, and adultescent (adult and adolescent) or kidult (kid and adult) in demographic description.

The term frankenword is in fact just another way of referring to an established concept in linguistics: that of portmanteau words. The word portmanteau originally referred to a leather case consisting of two halves connected by a hinge. Its alternative sense was first coined by author Lewis Carroll in his classic novel Alice Through the Looking Glass, where it was used to describe the idea of fusing two words together to make a new word. The term was subsequently adopted in linguistics, where portmanteau words are often alternatively referred to as blends, from the idea of 'blending' or 'mixing' words together.

The fun thing about the term frankenword as an alternative to the technical terms portmanteau or blend, is that it is self-referring, i.e.: the term frankenword is itself a frankenword, being a blend of the words Frankenstein (the name of the monster made from various body parts in the novel by Mary Shelley) and word. Frankenword was coined by analogy with terms such as Frankenfood and Frankenfruit, where the prefix Franken- is used productively with the general meaning 'genetically engineered'.

The use of the prefix Franken- in the term frankenword highlights another very common process in the formation of neologisms, that of affixation. New words are often coined when an affix is applied in a productive way across a range of different words, some of which fall outside the usage for which the affix was originally intended. Franken- for instance, was originally intended to apply to foods and the plants and crops that they originate from, as opposed to rather more abstract concepts such as the words of a language.

Surprisingly perhaps, completely 'new' new words account for less than one per cent of all English neologisms. Combining processes such as affixation and blending are a far richer source of new vocabulary. The vast majority of neologisms will contain at least one element that is already familiar to us. In the case of affixation, an established piece of vocabulary is extended by a new prefix or suffix, which through regular use begins to acquire a meaning which is understood by people generally.

New affixes may not always look like those familiar prefixes and suffixes we recognise as basic morphemes in English word formation, i.e.: prefixes such as re- or un- and suffixes such as -hood, -ment or -ness. In the world of neologisms, affixes are manipulated in which ever way seems to be effective in communicating a particular meaning. A good example is the productive suffix -tainment, taken from the word entertainment and used to refer to anything which has the function of making people enjoy themselves. Recent examples of words resulting from productive use include:

kiddie-tainment entertainment aimed at children
retro-tainment old TV shows and films
sports-tainment entertainment related to sports
edutainment (education and -tainment) a form of entertainment which is educational
advertainment (advertise and -tainment) advertising that entertains
militainment (military and -tainment) news coverage of war
irritainment (irritating and -tainment) broadcasting which is annoying but at the same time rather compulsive
infotainment (information and -tainment) television programmes which provide information on current affairs or other serious issues in an entertaining way

New affixes in English may also not always originate from the English language. One example in current productive use is the affix über- from the same word in German, which means 'over', 'above' or 'about'. Its productive use as an English prefix has the meaning 'super' or 'ultra', presumably inspired by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch, a superior kind of human being. The prefix often has slightly negative overtones, i.e.: the idea of 'excessively'. Über- (commonly also occurring without the umlaut over the u, i.e.: uber-) is often added as a prefix to adjectives, popular examples of which are: über-successful, über-modern, über-trendy, über-rich and über-popular. The prefix is particularly prevalent in journalistic prose, as the following citations from recent issues of the Guardian newspaper illustrate:

'Holland is not just a freelance, he is the uber-freelance.'
(24th July 2004)

'... and the 5.7 million who switched on to see ubernanny Jo Frost take on the terrible Steer twins '
(19th July 2004)

' England sat further and further back in their uber-defensive formation of which Sven is so fond.'
(24th June 2004)

'Now his idea has been picked up in Brooklyn by those uber-hip kids at McSweeney's '
(25th July 2004)

Other examples of productive affixes which are thriving in the noughties include:

-ista forming a noun which refers to a supporter or devotee of a person or ideology. Classic examples relate to politicians, such as Blairista, Bushista and Clintonista. Again the affix has its origins in another language: -ista is the Spanish counterpart of the English suffix -ist. The use of -ista often relates to the idea of an obsessive or professional interest in something, e.g.: the term fashionista can either be used to describe a professional in the fashion industry, or someone who is obsessive about fashion.

-rati used to form a plural noun referring to a group of people who claim to have special expertise in a particular area, e.g.: digerati (also spelt digirati) refers to those who claim to have sophisticated expertise in computing and the Internet. The suffix is based on literati, an early 17th century word from Latin used to refer to intellectuals (literally 'lettered people'). The use of this suffix often has rather disapproving overtones, as if describing an elitist clique or faction. Other recent examples in the techno-world include texterati, which describes experts in text messaging, and picturati for experts in picture messaging. The term glitterati is a recent synonym for the elite, often referring to the most beautiful and popular celebrities of the acting world.

-razzi is used to form a plural noun referring to people, usually journalists, who persistently invade the personal privacy of individuals in the public eye. This suffix originates from the word paparazzi, a derogatory term for a team of photographers who relentlessly pursue celebrities. The word paparazzi is based on the character Paparazzo, a news photographer in the 1960 Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita. The singular -o ending of Paparazzo was changed to the Italian plural -i to convey the idea of a group of photographers. Interestingly, recent productive use of -razzi as a suffix often identifies the -i ending as singular and pluralizes with -s, so we have for example stalkerazzi(s), tabloid journalists who doggedly pursue celebrities night and day, and snaparazzi(s), amateur photographers who pursue celebrities to take their pictures.

-gate forming a noun or adjective denoting a scandal. This derives from the US Watergate political scandal of the 1970s which eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon. The suffix has since been used productively to denote any kind of scandal involving people in the public eye, such as Camillagate, used in the late nineties in reference to tapes of telephone conversations between HRH Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Monicagate, in the context of President Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. This suffix is thriving happily into the noughties, thanks for example to Cherie Blair's association with Carol Caplin which spawned Cheriegate in 2002, and indeed a new -gate was coined in recent months: the term Svengate has appeared in the tabloid press in the context of the alleged affair between a Football Association secretary and England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.