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Hurricane Sandy: No Time for Neologisms?

When it first became evident that Hurricane Sandy might merge with an inland snowstorm to create a superstorm, the creative labels started pouring in. Snowicane. Snor'eastercane. Frankenstorm. But now that the storm has shut down much of the East Coast, is it time to set aside such wordplay?

The coinages began when Sandy was still gathering in the Caribbean, in the middle of last week. On Wednesday, Eric Holthaus of the Wall Street Journal's Metropolis blog suggested snor'eastercane, blending snow, nor'easter, and (hurri)cane:

Odds are increasing that a hybrid "snor'eastercane" could make landfall near Greater New York early next week, with wide-ranging impacts affecting nearly the entire East Coast.

Jen Doll of The Atlantic Wire approved:

Hark, the three-word weather portmanteau! Portmanteauing in itself is wondrous, and this form is a thing of beauty, combining "snow" with "nor'easter" with "hurricane." When you take all of those things apart and look at them one by one, perhaps it's daunting—if you are the fearful type, even terrifying. But together there's a beautiful sibilance combined with a certain adorableness. The Tweeters of the world agree (sort of)! This is the best weathermanteau yet.

New York Magazine's Daily Intel, meanwhile, suggested snowicane:

That's right: It's worse than a storm known to history as the Perfect Storm. Because it's not just a storm, it's a snowicane. A Perfect Snowicane, Hurricarnage, or whatever portmanteau we collectively settle on eventually.

Gawker, however, went with snowcone:

Because it would be a combination snowstorm + hurricane, the proper name for this storm is "snowcane," but, as there is no time to learn new words in the midst of a crisis, you should refer to it as a "snowcone."

(Snor'eastercane, snowicane, and snowcone recall the snow-blending that was popular in the winter of 2010: see Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column, "SnOMG! It's Snowmageddon 2010.")

But the authoritative neologism came from the National Weather Service's Jim Cisco, who introduced Frankenstorm in a weather advisory on Thursday, October 26th. CNN's This Just In explained:

If you're wondering where "Frankenstorm" came from: The name appears to have picked up steam after meteorologists noticed the National Weather Service's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center's extended forecast discussion page from Thursday afternoon.

In that discussion, a prediction center meteorologist wrote that the unusual merger of Hurricane Sandy and the cold front would happen around Wednesday - Halloween - "inviting perhaps a ghoulish nickname for the cyclone along the lines of 'Frankenstorm,' an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements."

Linguist Arnold Zwicky noted that this isn't the first appearance of Frankenstorm:

The combining form Franken- (roughly, ‘monster') is a natural outgrowth of Frankenstein, applied especially to genetically modified (GM) organisms (e.g., Frankenfood), but it has wider uses as well, as in this posting from earlier this year:

Franken- hasn't confined itself to the GM world. Here's an extension (from Quinion's World Wide Words #675 of 1/30/10) to the weather:

Frankenstorm: The recent wild weather in California was the subject of a report from the Associated Press which appeared in various newspapers on Monday. Karen Courtenay read it in the Boston Globe: "A team of scientists hunkered down at the California Institute of Technology to work on a ‘Frankenstorm' scenario – a mother lode wintry blast that could potentially sock the Golden State.

Some griped that the Franken- of Frankenstorm stems from a common misconception about the name Frankenstein. From Dictionary.com's The Hot Word:

In German, the name Frankenstein translates to "stronghold of freemen,"  most likely referring to various castles and battlements around the country that also carry the name. Mary Shelley however, believed the name came to her in a vivid dream. But now, in the case of "Frankenstorm," the application of the "Franken-" prefix might not be on point. In Shelley's novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein never names his creation. Instead he disowns the monster by refusing to name it, referring to it as "demon," "thing," "wretched devil," and a long list of awful aliases.

But a more pointed complaint about Frankenstorm came from newsrooms. Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre explained his newspaper's policy:

Yesterday, I sent this message to the newsroom staff: We will not be using the word "Frankenstorm" in coverage of Hurricane Sandy, because the term trivializes a serious and potentially deadly event. It's acceptable in direct quotes, but even there we shouldn't overdo it.

The Sun was following the lead of CNN. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post reported on the network's ban on the word:

Management at the network has issued a directive not to use "Frankenstorm," on the rationale that the storm is powerful and deadly. "Let's not trivialize it," said the directive, according to CNN meteorologist and severe weather expert Chad Myers.

"It's a term that's not appropriate for a storm that's already killed more than 20 people," says Myers. The directive doesn't much affect Myers, who says he's never used "Frankenstorm" on air; he did see a banner that deployed the term and dashed off a quick text message ordering its removal. "It's too big of an event to make fun of it."

What do you think? Does the severity of Sandy mean that wordsmiths should stop trying to come up with clever names for it? Let us know in the comments below.


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Comments from our users:

Monday October 29th 2012, 5:04 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
In times of greatest danger and potential defeat by an unstoppable and vicious force of the worst the Nature can do, why should we lose our sense of humor and fun in our paltry attempt to deal with the truth of this POWER?
To lose that sense of balance in times of greatest agony is to give in to the depressive effects of hopelessness.
WORDSMITHS: continue to due you worst! Make fun of "political correctness"!
Monday October 29th 2012, 5:09 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Please excuse the misspellings. You get my meaning.
Monday October 29th 2012, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
As an old sailor, I have to wonder about some of the educted people publishing some of the folderol in the race to create the most eye catching headlines. "Snor'eastercane"? Isn't this storm coming from eht Carribean, which is south and west of New England? A nor'easter comes out of the north and east, not the south and west.

Don't get me wrong, I admire those who can invent new words and phrases with such apparent ease, and I get a good chuckle from many of them as they pass into obscurity as the danger passes. However, newly coined words and phrases should contain some precision and accuracy in describing the event. Thumbs down on "snor'eastercane".

Besides, Sandy will probably fizzle out before the expected dire consequences are realized.
Monday October 29th 2012, 9:56 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mike: Snor'eastercane is meant to suggest a collision of Hurricane Sandy with two other weather systems, an inland snowstorm and a nor'easter, resulting in a "perfect storm."
Monday October 29th 2012, 12:44 PM
Comment by: Charlotte
Snowcone is a good word to keep peoples spirits up, but I think that it can be left to anybody to design their own name for it; different names suit different people.
Tuesday October 30th 2012, 7:55 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Ben, I know what it is supposed to suggest, but the visual just doesn't appear for me, perhaps because I also know what each component means. It sounds more like a sleeping pill that gives one dreams of the Easter Bunny delivering candy canes than of a giant storm.

If you don't care for words that at least partially describe the event, you might be even more satisfied by calling the storm rishw'alzquar'tie. By virtue of quantity in letters, punctuation marks and uniqueness it is better and just as descriptive.

And what's with capitalizing the thing? Same with hurricane. Snow and nor'easter don't deserve their own capitalization when used in conjunction with the others?

Boy, was I wrong about Sandy fizzling. I'd better keep my day job in place of prognostication.
Thursday November 1st 2012, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Anth
Despite the creativity of Frankenstorm, I've heard superstorm used more in the news. As of today, Google shows 89,000,000 results in the last week for Frankenstorm versus susperstorm's 290,000,000 results. Evidence reflects the novel descriptor with the most traction is the one which is most descriptive, the one which uses the most "productive" formative. Super- has already used to create many new(ish) words, like superstore, superhero and superfood. Beyond Frankenfood and Frankenberry, Franken- hasn't contributed to our growing word pool in the way longstanding super- has. Neologisms are more likely to be adopted when they employ productive words we know well.

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