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A Shark Takes a Bite

sharkmeetchainsawA couple of weeks ago, the Twittersphere was busy commenting on the television premiere of a Syfy channel Original Movie named Sharknado. Five thousand tweets a minute during the broadcast, we are told. There were many tributes to its awfulness: preposterous plot (tornado picks up sharks, dumps them on LA), absurd acting, insipid special effects. Syfy, many said, had outdone itself in schlockiness with this movie.

Key to the movie’s breathtaking mediocrity was its title. “If we don’t have a good title, we’re not going to make the movie,” Syfy’s executive vice president for programming said in a recently published interview.

And good titles Syfy has had for its Original Movies. Like Sharknado, some are unlikely pairings of words or parts of words: Mansquito, Piranhaconda, Dinocroc, Stonados, Arachnoquake. In a Lingua Franca post last year, Geoffrey Pullum suggested a name for this kind of blend: frankenword, meaning a word made up of an “unnatural combination of parts.”

Pullum explained: “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.”

Franken itself is an unnatural prefix, extracted from the first part of Frankenstein to suggest something monstrous in the same way gate was taken from the end of Watergate to suggest a political scandal. Franken is particularly apt because the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 story was put together from parts of various dead bodies.

Sharknado is certainly a frankenword, by Pullum’s definition. Its first part is a whole word, but that shark seems to be in the process of biting off the head of the tornado it’s connected to. Nado by itself has no independent meaning.

Indeed, tornado itself has a twisted past. It looks like a Spanish word, perhaps along the lines of mosquito, but it’s not. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it appears to have entered English in the 16th century as “a bad adaptation of Spanish tronada, ‘thunderstorm’,” and “tornado was an attempt to improve it by treating it as a derivative of Spanish tornar to turn, return. … It is notable that this spelling is identified with explanations in which, not the thunder, but the turning, shifting, or whirling winds are the main feature.”

Sharknado is appropriately monstrous also in the choice of the elements it combines. Mansquito, Dinocroc, and the like are combinations of two creatures; Sharknado links a sea creature with a weather phenomenon.

There’s a nicer name for frankenwords: portmanteau words. In the 19th century, it was coined by that eminent mathematician and philologist Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll. In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains the vocabulary of “Jabberwocky” to Alice:

“Well, slithy means ‘lithe and slimy.’ Lithe is the same as ‘active.’ You see, it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

And portmanteau itself, the OED tells us, has been in the English language for half a millennium. It was borrowed from the French, of course, and ultimately derives from the word for an “officer who carries the mantle of a person in a high position.”

It’s not as precise as Pullum’s frankenword, which designates etymologically inappropriate conjunctions, but I like its elegance. Frankly, though, it’s too polite for  a sharknado.

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