Found in Australia recently was this enormous toad. Newspapers reporting the story have nicknamed this impressive beastie “Toadzilla”, in a lazy homage to the Toho Studio creation, Godzilla. For the curious, this Cane Toad measures roughly 15 inches long (from snout to vent), while an average such toad lays out at 4-6 inches. For today, though, we’re less interested in the toad and far more interested in the suffix, -zilla.
-Zilla comes from Godzilla (naturally), the 1954 Japanese monster. By one account, the word Godzilla is, itself, a compound word. Toho Studios, looking for a word to describe their monster, combined the Japanese words gorira (for “gorilla”) and kujira (for “whale”), forming Gojira. Another account mentions a big, tough looking guy who worked at the studio possessing the nickname “Gojira”, and the monster was named after him. Either way, Gojira was the Japanese name and was soon transliterated into English as Godzilla. At some point, English users decided to lop off God- and use the remainder as a suffix meaning either “monstrous” or, more often, “monstrously or unprecedentedly large”.
-Zilla holds a unique position in the English language. It is, at least to the best my knowledge, our only augmentative suffix. English has plenty of diminutive suffixes (most notably -y and -ie as in “doggy” and -et and -ette as in “booklet”). It also has a few diminutive and augmentative prefixes (micro- for “microprocessor”, and super- for “supermarket”). Augmentative suffixes are also common in other languages. Offhand, I know that a number of the Romance languages use them. For instance, in Spanish, a perro (“dog”) can become a perrazo (“big dog”), and in Italian, a naso (“nose”) can be a nasone (“big nose”). English has no such suffix, except -zilla, which only functions in the paramount. Sure, your yellow labrador may be a big dog, but Gibson is dogzilla.
Mary Shelley wrote a book at the encouragement of her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, called Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. A cautionary tale against the Industrial Revolution and the over-reaching of man, the book is about a madman, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who creates a new human out of the biggest and best parts he can find from the corpses of old humans. He wakes the creature up, is horrified by the creature, and flees. The creature thereafter disappears. Long story short, there’s a lot of mucking about with the creature killing everyone Victor loves out of revenge, and Victor then chasing the monster nearly to the North Pole. The book came out in 1818. When the movie came out in 1931, the creature became known as “Frankenstein”.
According to William Safire in his language column, “The Way We Live Now” (subscription needed), the first usage of Franken-was in 1992 in a letter to the New York Times, writing about genetically modified food. Throughout the 1990s, the opponents of genetically modified lunches set about calling such things “Frankenfood”, and “Frankenfruit”. The usage then expanded to “Frankenworld”, referencing the society of genetically modified food-eaters.
Continuing to evolve, Franken– no longer necessarily denotes genetic modification. It can be used to describe something that is merely different from what is commonly accepted. In 2004, a snakehead fish was discovered in Philadelphian waters. This fish, which grows 2-3 feet long, has the ability to walk for short distances on land. This unusual characteristic gave it the nickname Frankenfish. An early episode of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters (Episode 9, “Chicken Gun”) refers to a souped up washing machine as Frankenwasher.
Franken- clearly has a negative connotation, as that which has been modified is now “dangerous or monstrous”, like the creature from Mary Shelley’s book.