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Frankenstorm

noun [countable]

a very large and dangerous storm caused by a combination of storms and other particular weather conditions

'The approach of hurricane Sandy, … has already derailed presidential campaigning plans and caused New York to shut down its public transport system … Sandy is forecast to combine with two other storms in the coming days, creating what the weather service has called a Frankenstorm.'

Financial Times 29th October 2011

In late October 2012, an unprecedented set of weather conditions caused a storm of gigantic proportions to batter the east coast of North America. Hurricane Sandy, thought to be the largest Atlantic storm on record, was intensified by a 'freakish' combination of meteorological circumstances which led to its description as a Frankenstorm.

use of the word Frankenstorm met with some criticism from those who thought it trivialized an extremely serious situation

Though the term of reference Frankenstorm may seem mildly humorous, the storm itself was no joke, causing several fatalities and wreaking havoc on various parts of the East Coast, including New York City, where it flooded streets, tunnels and subway lines, cut power supplies and destroyed homes.

The severity of the storm was thought to be the product of a sudden, unique combination of weather conditions. It began with Hurricane Sandy, an 'ordinary' late summer hurricane from the tropics, which was gradually moving north up the East Coast. A ridge of high pressure centred around Greenland then blocked the hurricane's normal path out to sea, steering it west towards land, exacerbated by a wintry cold front from the west which helped pull the storm inland. A further blast of Arctic air from the North created one massive meteorological collision, capped off by a full moon and its usual effect of driving high tides. The resulting cocktail unleashed gale force winds, torrential rain and immense waves, with devastating effects.

The unprecedented magnitude of the storm and its effect on central New York catapulted the term Frankenstorm across the global headlines, both during and in anticipation of the actual event. Though catchy and instantly memorable like many blends, use of the word Frankenstorm met with some criticism from those who thought it trivialized an extremely serious situation. The terms superstorm (where prefix super- means extremely large or excessive), megastorm and perfect storm have therefore also been used in reference to the same event.

Background – Frankenstorm

Though Frankenstorm was thrown into the spotlight by events in October 2012 (a seasonal irony because the storm occurred around Halloween with its associated ghouls and 'monsters'), first use of the term had in fact appeared a couple of years earlier, when scientists at the California Institute of Technology used it to describe a hypothetical but plausible scenario of weather conditions potentially causing an immense storm.

The prefix Franken- is of course based on the word Frankenstein, the title of an early nineteenth century novel by Mary Shelley, in which a monster is created in an unorthodox science experiment by Victor Frankenstein. In the experiment, Frankenstein uses various human and animal body parts to bring to life a freakish, human-like creature. The analogy in Frankenstorm is therefore of a freak, monstrous storm that is the product of various weather conditions coming together at once.

The prefix franken- has been around since the early nineties, first appearing in the expression frankenfood, which is an informal, derogatory way of referring to genetically modified foodstuffs, and spawned related terms like frankenfruit, frankenfish, etc. Exhibiting some degree of productivity, the prefix has somehow developed into a kind of "metaphor for an 'unnatural creation', which sometimes, some would argue, is the unintentional consequence of scientific and technological advances (i.e. in the case of Frankenstorm, the unwelcome consequences of climate change).

Like many such blends, use of the term Frankenstorm may dwindle in the months and years after the actual event. Other recent blends used in similar circumstances which have proved ephemeral include blizzaster, snowpocalypse, and snowmageddon.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 19th November 2012.

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