In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.
William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken– prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”
A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”
All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.
Mary Shelley published Frankenstein—the name came to her in a dream, she said—in 1818, when science was ascendant, but religion had a tight grip on the popular imagination as well. The ambivalence generated by those two competing visions of man’s place in the universe hasn’t left us. It’s embedded in compounds that enact what they describe: the suturing of disparate parts into one unlovely, possibly dangerous whole.
After Lewis’ frankenfood caught fire, the prefix mostly attached to plants and animals that in some way bore the fingerprints of genetic researchers. Newspapers reported on “frankengrass,” “frankenseed,” “frankenveggies,” and “frankencorn.” GMO detractors deplored “frankenchicken” and “frankenfish” raised on “frankenfarms.” The references aren’t always negative: Perhaps reflecting a growing comfort with DNA tinkering, a 2015 slideshow from the New York Times listed some of the best “frankenfoods” to come out of America’s laboratories, many of them (such as moon-and-stars watermelon, Gilfeather turnips, Olympia oysters, and Mangalitsa pigs) endangered or extinct species that science had revived. Genetic modifications don’t just improve the market quality of comestibles on offer. In the case of Golden Rice and other crops fortified with extra vitamins, they can help prevent malnutrition. They have been praised for requiring fewer pesticides and less land; for more effectively fighting weeds, pests, and blights; and for boasting longer shelf lives. Still, “there’s a significant ick factor when it comes to so-called Frankenfoods,” wrote Kate Murphy in 2014. Yet there seems to be a collective agreement about where to draw the line when using the prefix: We don’t refer to to potential three-parent IVF kids as “frankenbabies,” or cutting-edge medical treatments as “frankencures.”
Another frankenchild to make lexical waves is the self-referential “frankenword,” which playfully (or contemptuously) refers to verbal portmanteaus. Noting that the Design Hotels Group had dreamed up a coinage, “bleisure,” for trips that involve both business and pleasure, journalist Nick Curtis dismissed the “Frankenword that sounds like an ointment for something nasty or the noise you make when vomiting.” In this example, what’s being highlighted isn’t the hubris or folly of plundering the natural world—just the ugliness of inartful combinations.
Other usages zero in on an element of heterogeneity that may or may not be monstrous. A “frankenstorm”—like the 2012 horror that swirled together “Hurricane Sandy from the Caribbean, a western early winter storm, and a cold influx of Arctic wind from the north”—diabolically mashes up multiple weather systems. But a Frankenbike just incorporates scavenged parts into a new mode of transport, and a Frankenbite is a reality-show reel that, while it might make contestants look like nightmares, simply “splices … disparate strands of an interview … into a single clip.”
Just as Shelley’s monster got away from his creator, franken- has wandered a bit from its origins. There are times when the prefix seems harmless, even charming. (Take the kids movie Frankenweenie, which posits that undead dogs can be both loving and adorable. Or Frankenfries, which, frankly, look delicious.) That not all of our frankenfears have been dispelled, however, is probably a healthy indication of humility in the face of the unknown. “It’s a Frankenworld,” said Lewis, the prefix’s mad inventor, when Safire reached out to him for comment. If he meant a world rife with unintended consequences, shot through with both beauty and ugliness, and stumbling about in search of existential meaning, I’m Franken-clined to agree with him.
This article is part of the Frankenstein installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.