31

I did not know that "Frankenstein" can be used as a verb.

Max Kellerman, a highly reputed sports analyst working for ESPN, says

"When you Frankenstein a team together, usually it doesn't work out that first season ..."

Source: Stephen A. to LeBron: Kawhi is coming for you, do something about it! from 43 seconds.

This is in regards to the Los Angeles Lakers NBA team. Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith are talking about how Lakers' can't win a championship this year because they have recently traded in two really big time superstar players - Lebron James and Anthony Davis (AD) - and a bunch of other mediocre players and this is their first season/year playing together.

I have a pretty good idea about what Max means, but I couldn't clearly write it down if I had to.

I think Max is saying that Lebron, AD, and the others are equivalent to the limbs and body parts of the monster - they are great individually. But now that you put them all together - essentially bringing Frankenstein to life - it won't work out as expected in the first attempt (season).


Dictionary entries:

I can't find a "verb" entry for "Frankenstein" in Cambridge, Collins, or MW.

Cambridge: Frankenstein (n) - something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it.

Collins: Frankenstein (n) - (1) a person who creates something that brings about his or her ruin (2) a thing that destroys its creator (also called Frankenstein's monster).


Question:

  • Shouldn't the "noun" form of "Frankenstein" need to have a meaning such as

"a dominant unit or group engineered by putting together multiple great things or people"

in order for the word "Frankenstein" to be used as a verb?

The "noun" meaning should be at least close to the implied "verb" meaning, which does not seem to be the case based on the definitions.

  • Can you actually use this as a verb and expect people will understand and not be confused?

  • What exactly does "Frankenstein together" mean?

It surely does not simply mean "put a team together". Does it then mean putting together (initially incompatible) great pieces or people in a unit?

  • 5
    I think this is an excellent question, maybe worthy of a reference on meta. It spells out the confusion extraordinarily well—a great help for the people writing answers. Figurative use of a foreign language is often mysterious and surprising to at least an ESL learner. It can leave one scarcely knowing what to ask—which makes this question especially well made. Here's another question that might illustrate the difficulty (see the comments). – Ben Kovitz Oct 24 at 20:38
  • Dictionary.com now lists franken- as a combining form. It seems that usage of the Frankenstein metaphor is increasing. – laugh Oct 29 at 11:58
  • @laugh This is very interesting. No one pointed this out here, thanks. – AIQ Oct 29 at 18:45
48

It's a figure of speech, known as anthimeria: the use of a word in a part of speech other than its customary usage.*

Ordinarily, Frankenstein is a proper noun referring to a fictional monster originally from the 1818 novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and later made into numerous horror movies, most famously a 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff. The movie version is the best known: a monster created by stitching together body parts gathered from several corpses and brought to life by zapping it with electricity. The Frankenstein monster is usually portrayed as an ugly mess, with the stitches visible, green skin, a lumbering walk, and bolts sticking out of his neck.

Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster
Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster

Mark Kellerman's figure of speech draws an analogy between the Lakers and the Frankenstein monster: both were "stitched together" from parts (basketball players or body parts) that don't fit together well. There is no implication that the players are individually great. The Lakers and Frankenstein lack the organic unity normally found in a smoothly functioning team or a living organism. Notice that in Kellerman's next sentence, he elaborates on the idea of unrelated parts stitched together: "It took so much to get the big parts together, to get the details right around them is going to take another year of figuring it out…"


More questions answered

There is no need for the noun "Frankenstein" to already have an abstracted meaning close to that of the figurative verb. With figures of speech, the only limits are what analogies you hope your listeners can follow. If "Frankenstein" as a verb made only a tiny jump from the meaning of the noun, it wouldn't be punchy. The power of figurative language derives from the leap that a listener must make to understand it. Evoking the specific, concrete story and image is what makes this figure of speech so pungent. The story includes notions like digging up bodies from a graveyard and a mad scientist trying to force life into them with an artificial electric jolt. These details influence how the listener interprets the figure of speech—that is, how the listener is led to view the Lakers. A generalized abstraction would lack the color and emotional resonance that those concrete details provide.

Yes, you can make this figure of speech with most fluent English speakers and expect to be understood without any explanation—even though it's surprising and unusual. The Frankenstein monster is a very well known cultural landmark. The picture above is iconic; the word Frankenstein brings it to mind. Frankenstein is even a standard Halloween costume for children.

The reason you don't see Frankenstein listed as a verb in dictionaries is because people have only seldom used it as a verb. Occasionally a figure of speech becomes common enough that dictionaries record it. That's how the Cambridge and Collins definitions that you found reached those dictionaries. When a figure of speech becomes common enough to reach a dictionary, it's no longer surprising. Sometimes a figure of speech becomes so commonplace that people no longer even understand it as a jump in meaning from the original usage. But both of those are rare. Most figures of speech are invented for a single occasion and never used again.


More examples

Anthimeria is common in English, especially the use of a noun as a verb, often called "verbing" a noun (an instance of itself). It's especially popular in advertising. Here are a few more examples:

Unlock your more. (An advertising slogan that uses an adverb as a noun.)

Come TV with us. (Another noun used as a verb.)

He recycled this gift! He's a regifter! (From an episode of Seinfeld. A noun used implicitly as a verb used implicitly to make another verb ("regift") used to make a noun for someone who does the verb. This all happens in one leap and no one has difficulty following it.)

Listen to this. Marzy comes over and tells me that her ex-boyfriend was over late last night, and "yada yada yada, I'm really tired today." You don't think she'd yada yada sex? (Also from an episode of Seinfeld. This (famously) uses nonsense filler syllables as a verb.)


* But you should know that "anthimeria" is an obscure word. Few fluent speakers have even heard of it.

  • 2
    As a minor note: The use of nouns as verbs occurs in both British and American English but is significantly more common in American English. – user5505 Oct 24 at 8:49
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    As another minor note, Frankenstein was the name of the mad professor, not the monster. – Edheldil Oct 24 at 10:43
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    Arguably, if you "Frankenstein a team together"...you are acting like Dr. Frankenstein, and the team is Frankenstein's monster, so it's correct. You wouldn't "Frankenstein's monster a team together". (Although realistically, most people probably aren't thinking of it that way, they're just using the title of the book as a shorthand for the whole concept.) – user3067860 Oct 24 at 17:10
  • 4
    In (computer/software)-tech Frankensteining is a fairly often used term to indicate something is constructed from components that were never designed to go together..There is also the (in)famous Franken-cable (an improvised adapter-cable made by wiring different connectors and plugs together). – Tonny Oct 24 at 18:09
  • 1
    @user5505 It’s interesting that verbing is more common in AmE. Is there a paper or something where I can read more about that? – ColleenV Oct 26 at 10:35
36

This is called verbing, the practice of using a word, most likely a noun, as a verb. The most effective and popular way to verb is with new/unique/special concepts, as in your example.

Frankenstein, as you probably know, is a well-known and well-popularized book by English writer Mary Shelley. Here the author of the ESPN piece uses this cultural reference to say "put together a team," the same way Frankenstein pieces together his creation, as you have correctly noted. (Note that contrary to popular misconception, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist/creator in the book, rather than the creature. The creature is never named in the book, I believe.)

I can't help but invoke this comic strip to illustrate verbing.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin says "I like to verb words. I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed. Verbing weirds language." Hobbes says "Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding."

As to whether people will understand the cultural reference, well, I assume the author expects most of their readers to get it. There is of course always a chance that the reader will scratch their head over a cultural reference, but that is also the case every time a popular culture reference is made or an lesser-used idiom is used.

  • 15
    Remember when "upvote" wasn't even a word? Now it's a noun and a verb! – Andrew Oct 23 at 22:06
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    MacGyver is an older verbed word very similar to OP's usage. MacGyver-ing (warning: TVTropes) a solution means working a make-shift solution that is extremely unconventional. – Nelson Oct 24 at 8:25
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    @Nelson MacGyvering and Frankensteining are similar but carry very different connotations. MacGyvering focuses on being clever, Frankensteining focuses on the ugly end result. The two aren't mutually exclusive but they do invoke different sentiments on the speaker's behalf. OP's example seems to focus on the awkward end result, so Frankensteining seems like a better fit here. – Flater Oct 24 at 8:47
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    @only_pro But, words are useless unless the listener also knows what the speaker intended for them to mean. "Meaning" is important, otherwise you NutriBullet the slurglewhomp... – Chronocidal Oct 25 at 9:40
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    @only_pro You remind me of Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." which leaves poor Alice scratching her head in confusion as she can't keep up. fecundity.com/pmagnus/humpty.html – CJ Dennis Oct 25 at 23:07
23

Is it a verb? Yes. Is it a new verb? No!

The book Frankenstein was published in 1818 and the verb popped up less than 10 years later:

I want some Howard Paine to sketch a skeleton of..scenes..and I'd Frankenstein them there.
Letters by Charles Lamb, 1827 (via the OED)

Even if someone hasn't read the book, most people will know who Frankenstein (more properly called Frankenstein's monster) is, because of Halloween. Therefore, the meaning of the verb will be fairly clear to most people, even if it's not used that often. It's definitely informal, though.

It's actually very common to see proper nouns become verbs, especially now.

10

I'm surprised that nobody has approached it from this angle, but...

Frankenstein is not the name of the monster!

In Shelly's original novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and almost every adaptation since, it is Doctor Frankenstein who created the monster, so the use of "Frankenstein" as a verb here is following the same pattern as to lynch or to boycott: verbs named for a famous (or notorious) person. (Co-incidentally, both of these men were named Charles: Capt. Charles Boycott, a land-agent in 19th century Ireland; and Charles Lynch, Virigina Justice of the Peace in the 18th century, who organised mobs of citizens to hunt suspected criminals)

"To assemble the parts of different bodies together to make one new one"

As Frankenstein constructed a complete being from fragments of other bodies, Kellerman's use of "Frankenstein" as a verb in the original is apt: the new team was constructed by assembling parts of many other teams. There's also a suggestion that some of those parts may have been of less than top quality.

  • I too thought this, so glad somebody brought it up. – Chillin' Oct 24 at 16:17
  • 2
    It's tricky because in loose, popular usage, "Frankenstein" refers to the monster. I think the cognitive pressures causing this slippage of reference are nearly invincible—except on Frankenstein's home court, i.e. while reading the novel, watching one of the movies, talking about the story, etc. – Ben Kovitz Oct 24 at 20:09
  • 2
    This seems appropriate: xkcd.com/1589 – LindaJeanne Oct 24 at 20:29
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    "To lynch" means "to do what Charles Lynch famously did", but "to boycott" means "to do what was famously done to Charles Boycott", so I think that the Frankenstein in "to Frankenstein" could plausibly be the doctor or the monster. – benrg Oct 26 at 20:43
1

Because "Frankenstein" (as the monster) is a literary metaphor, this is not really an English language question at all. When used as a verb, the metaphor should have the same potential meaning in any language, at least to those familiar with the reference.

Let me give a similar example to illustrate what I mean. Suppose I know a group of three friends, and I tell you

They're like the Three Musketeers.

The novel "Les Trois Mousquetaires" was originally written in French, but as a metaphor for something like

a close group of three friends who stick together, no matter what

it works in any language. In the same way "to Frankenstein together" makes sense if you understand that Frankenstein's monster was assembled from parts of various cadavers, and given life with a bolt of electricity. The exactly intent is ambiguous, but can usually be gleaned from context.

My point is that the opinion of a native English speaker is no more likely to be valid than that of a well-read non-native speaker. As you say, you already have a fairly good idea of what this phrase means in this context, so consider this validation.

  • 2
    A couple slight disagreements (not that I think you should change your answer): 1. The cultural reference is part of the common knowledge of (much of) the English-speaking world—and language is essentially cultural references. 2. This kind of figure of speech (anthimeria) has a peculiar currency in English, which can be helpful for an ESL learner to have pointed out. It's not just a metaphor, it's a twist of grammar. Of course, your main point is well taken: figures of speech and literary references are found in all languages, not just English (though it can still help to explain them). – Ben Kovitz Oct 24 at 0:53
  • @Andrew: The "cultural heritage" argument differentiating Frankenstein from fairy tales is merely an argument on how old the story is. Fairy tales were once just fictional stories like Frankenstein, but its prevalence lead to people not referencing the original work but rather the story that was orally passed on. The same is happening to Frankenstein, it's just in an earlier stage where people have only recently started to reference the story rather than the work it originated from. – Flater Oct 24 at 8:50
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    The OP didn't seem surprised by the metaphor, but by the use of Frankenstein as a verb. Therefore, I don’t think your analogy is very helpful; using Three Musketeers as a verb would be more suitable (something like: Bobby, Joe, and Alex are always Three Musketeering). Moreover, I can't agree with your opening statement; not only is this an English language question, it's one of the better ones I've seen on ELL. – J.R. Oct 24 at 10:20
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    @J.R. To be clear, I think it's a fine question for ELL, but it's not really a question of English language. AIQ knows what it means, and what it likely means as a verb, and is just checking to see if others think the same. – Andrew Oct 24 at 13:37
  • Well, I'm glad someone opened this can of worms. Many people seem to be taught, at least implicitly, that a language is nothing but a set of definitions and rules. Many aren't aware of the all-important role of figurative relations in understanding even their native language. It might help some ESL learners a lot to let them know that this phenomenon is not specific to English. I expect that learning to notice it in one's native language ought to help one perceive it when learning a foreign language. – Ben Kovitz Oct 24 at 19:50
0

In the automotive and manufacturing environment, I have heard Frankenstein used adjectivally (as an attibutive noun): "Frankenstein bolts" are large bolts that stick out like those on Boris Karloff's neck.

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