‘Franken-’: meanings and origin

The colloquial derogatory prefix Franken- is used to form nouns with the sense genetically modified —— (as in Frankenfruit); also, occasionally, with the sense —— relating to genetic modification (as in Frankenscience).

This prefix is derived from Frankenstein, the name of the scientist who constructs a human monster and endows it with life in Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818), by the British novelist Mary Shelley (née Godwin – 1797-1851).
—Cf. also ‘Frankenstein’s monster’: meaning and origin.

It was Paul Lewis, Professor of English at Boston College, Massachusetts, USA, who first used the prefix Franken- to coin Frankenfood, denoting genetically modified food—synonym: Frankenstein food. Paul Lewis coined the noun Frankenfood in the following letter, published in The New York Times (New York City, New York, USA) of Tuesday 16th June 1992:

Since Mary Shelley
To the Editor:
“Tomatoes May Be Dangerous to Your Health” (Op-Ed, June 1) by Sheldon Krimsky is right to question the decision of the Food and Drug Administration to exempt genetically engineered crops from case-by-case review. 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.
Newton Center, Mass., June 2, 1992

Several nouns formed with the prefix Franken- occur in the following article about Paul Lewis’s coinage, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Wednesday 14th October 1992:

He created a monster word
By Mark Muro

When concerned citizen Paul Lewis wrote a letter to a newspaper this summer, he never imagined he’d wind up naming a burning new national issue.
However, that’s just what’s happened, to the amusement of the Boston College English professor.
Last June, you see, Lewis wrote a witty little note to the editor of The New York Times deriding genetically altered foodstuffs as a dangerous mutant innovation.
In it, he coined a new word, “Frankenfood,” one he thought summed up nicely the monstrous unnaturalness of such controversial new products as genetically enhanced tomatoes and chromosome-tinkered cows. The word seemed, as Lewis recalls, “pithy,” and sure enough, Lewis was pleased when on a Tuesday the Times printed his small riposte.
But that was just the beginning. Little did Lewis know that in expressing his opinion he was about to change the English language. First off, on June 28, Lewis’ neologism turned up on the front page of the Sunday Times, in the headline of a big story entitled “Geneticists’ Latest Discovery: Public Fear of ‘Frankenfood.’” Then, unbeknownst to Lewis, the word began to circulate. Shorn of Lewis’ name as its author, the word surfaced and resurfaced in the English-speaking press as a clever news bite in numerous stories about the creepy world of bionic food.
While Lewis vacationed in Maine, the word turned up on an environmental news service called Greenwire; while he sat under trees in July and August, it made its way into The Daily Telegraph in London, the Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers. “Critics are already labelling [gene-altered food] ‘Frankenfood’ and ‘Sci-Fi Food,’” observed the Telegraph on July 1; “BIONIC VEGGIES: FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ALLOWS ‘FRANKENFOOD,’ GENETICALLY ALTERED PRODUCE, TO BE MARKETED WITHOUT USUAL SAFETY TESTING,” clarioned a July 9 headline in the Los Angeles Times. That article also included the word’s first variant, “Frankenfruit.” And there was more.
On July 26 writer Michael Unger of Newsday wrote that “an array of doubters . . . call the tomatoes ‘Frankenfood,’” prompting an 11-year-old girl to use the word in her own letter to the editor declaring that “‘Frankenfood’ is a silly name for genetically engineered foods . . . It should be ‘Wonderfood.’”
On Aug. 3, Noah Adams used the word on NPR’s “All Things Considered” as he interviewed a restaurateur.
On Aug. 5, Molly O’Neill—the original Times writer who had mentioned Lewis’ coinage—weighed in again with a humorous look at frightened tomato-lovers’ anxieties entitled “Is Frankentomato Lurking Among the Nightshades?”
And so to O’Neill and others, a new word had been born: one no doubt heading first for the “Buzzwords” column in the front of Newsweek and, perhaps, for the Oxford English Dictionary.
Or, as O’Neill says: “It’s a great word.”
“I love the term. It’s got such wonderfully chilling connotations.”
She adds that the word was “all over the place” at the Institute of Food Technologists convention in New Orleans this summer.
As for Lewis himself, he’s having a ball, watching his word go gold as he gears up his fall teaching like a young Elvis watching his first radio single turn smash hit.
For certain, he enjoyed the initial publication of his letter itself, and when he heard the “All Things Considered” segment that employed his creation, he had the added fun of hearing his daughter running around his summer place shouting “Daddy’s word was on the radio!”
“That was probably the best moment,” he says.
Moreover, now that he has hit the big time—albeit anonymously—Lewis doesn’t mind expressing real pride. Bias aside, the professor doesn’t mind saying, this couldn’t have happened to a nicer word, because in his humble opinion, his is a fine word, a useful word, a word whose time has come.
“I’m proud of this word,” he says. “It has a phonetic rhythm, it’s pithy, and you can use the ‘Franken-’ prefix on anything: ‘Frankenfruit,’ say. You can say, ‘We’re breathing Frankenair.’ ‘We’re drinking Frankenwater.’ ‘It’s a Frankenworld.’” Or, as he says he has told several colleagues, “I’ve spent my life studying the English language; now it’s time to change it.”
No wonder, Lewis admits, that he’s working on a new coinage: schmoozeoisie. “This is that class of people who earn their living by talk,” he ventures. “It includes such traditional groups as teachers and therapists, but it’s expanding. Oprah’s a member of the schmoozeoise elite. Government is all schmoozeoicrats taking trillions and giving back words.”
For now, though, enough: Paul Lewis has his hit.
“Frankenfood is out there,” he says proudly. “It’s happening.” Now, he knows, if he dies, he can rest assured that his fame will be assured.
“It’ll be in my obituary,” Lewis says.
“‘Coiner of Word.’”

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