Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Compulsion to Fail at Chess

And here we are, at the letter “Z” word of the week. Since I began on the first week of January with adulterine, this means that we’re exactly halfway done with 2009 and just one more “A”-through-“Z” run before we’re done with this year altogether.
zugzwang (ZAG-zwang or ZUG-zwang) — noun: a situation in chess in which every move available to the player is disadvantageous.
Perhaps of all the obscure words I’ve posted on this blog so far, this is the one I’d like to see shed its status as jargon and become a more widely recognized term. And not only because it’s fun to say. Zugzwang also happens to name a situation nearly all of us are familiar with — and in a way, no less, that sounds a little more eloquent than the next-closest expression I could think of, the state of being colossally fucked. Literally translated from German, zugzwang means “compulsion to move,” which stems from the fact that, as Wikipedia notes, chess players in this situation would probably rather pass on their turn. They can’t however, as the rules of the game don’t allow players to do so.

image from

Like many wonderful German words, zugzwang defies a succinct English translation. As a chess term, however, it can be translated as movebound, or so says Ulrich, keeper of the German-centric KrautBlog.

Previous words of the week:
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Sunday, June 28, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Three: Name Origins for Sonic the Hedgehog

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather lengthy “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


There’s not all that much to say about Sonic the Hedgehog himself, but his arch-nemesis is a bit more complicated. Much in the manner that Peach was once Toadstool in the U.S. but was always Peach in Japan, the Sonic villain most of us grew up with no longer goes by the name Doctor Robotnik all the time. He is now sometimes Eggman, though he always had that name in Japan.

robotnik then, eggman now, and the roosevelt who inspired it all

Robotnik happens to mean worker in Polish. Robotnik was even the name of the newspaper of the Polish Socialist Party. Is Sonic, then, crusading against socialism? Probably not. Robotnik comes from the same origins as the word robot, and the Sonic villain should be known for robot creation if nothing else. Today, Robotnik goes by the far less cool name Doctor Eggman, in apparent reference to his rotund physique. By the way, on the subject of the character’s appearance, his looks — including his trademark mustache — were inspired by those of Teddy Roosevelt.

A commenter calling himself Generic pointed out that even later games seem to retain Robotnik as the character’s family name, even in Japan. For example, Sonic Adventure 2 and Shadow the Hedgehog both feature a kindlier member of the family, Maria Robotnik.

An anonymous commenter had a particularly intricate theory about why Sega changed the character’s name in the U.S. Here’s how he put it, though I should note that I shortened some of his sentences and changed some formatting.
The reason why his name was changed to Dr. Ivo Robotnik when introduced to the English-speaking world was because Sega feared a lawsuit, more than likely due to the estate of John Lennon concerning the Eggman title. Actually, one of the new names chosen for the portly scientist was the nonsensical Dr. Badvibes....

Going with
Ivo Robotnik in itself could be a joke on John Lennon. Robotnik translated from its Czech roots [could also be rendered] as “slave worker.” Ivo, the first name, in itself is shortened from Ivor, which is a variation on the name Ivan that has roots in the Russian/Scandinavian language. Ivan to boot is the Russian/Scandinavian version of John. But, if you remember, John [Lennon] was The Eggman [in the Yellow Submarine song “I Am the Eggman.” Translated from the Slavic meaning, Ivo Robotnik could mean John the Slave Worker — or as the [John Lennon solo song] John the Working Class Hero.
The comment concludes with the note that in the Sonic the Hedgehog Saturday morning cartoon, Robotnik was given the first name Julian, which happens to be the name of John Lennon’s first son. In all, it’s very interesting. It’s also a stretch, though perhaps only as much as other theories that I thought up myself. I’m not sure if the Eggman moniker would have been enough to elicit a lawsuit from the Lennon estate.

Sonic’s sidekick Tails has two names, as well — the one everyone knows and his “real” name, Miles Prower. It might seem like a useless footnote, but it brings the added benefit of being a pun on the phrase miles per hour. (Ha.) It should probably be noted that joke would make a lot more sense if Tails was known for running quickly instead of flitting about with his helicopter tail.

Similar issues exist for the Sonic series damsel, Amy Rose. She debuted in Sonic CD, whose English language version named her Rosy the Rascal. The name similar to that of Rosie the Riveter, which would make sense if the game’s translators wanted to give the character a sense of empowerment.

rascal, princess modern-day hammer-swinger

To complicate matters further, the English instruction manuals for certain releases of Sonic CD also referred to the character as Princess Sally, a different love interest for Sonic popularized in the non-cannon comics and cartoons. (For the record, Sally and other characters from the comics did appear in one actually game, Sonic Spinball.) Regardless, the character soon after became known in English-speaking markets as she had always been known in Japan and is known today: Amy Rose.

Commenter castaspella noted one bit of interesting information regarding this character. It’s not especially name-related but seemed worth noting anyhow: Amy or a character a lot like her was at one point planned to be Sonic’s sister. Sega had initially planned on reworking the RPG-tinged platforming title Popful Mail into a game called Sister Sonic, replacing the original characters with this prototype distaff hedgehog. Sister Sonic never came to pass, however, and eventually Popful Mail made it to the U.S. without being so drastically altered.

The majority of Sonic characters aren’t of much use for this article, as their names are straightforward. (Knuckles the Echidna, for example, is an echidna who has pointy knuckles. Not much to work with there.) There are, however, two characters that time has essentially forgotten, Ray the Flying Squirrel and Mighty the Armadillo, that I think deserve a mention. Both debuted in an arcade game, SegaSonic the Hedgehog, that allowed players to control Sonic, Ray and Mighty with a trackball and a single jump button. The three moved identically.

left to right: flight, speed, and power

Despite what their names might imply, Ray could not fly and Mighty was not especially powerful. Lame, I know. And I think Sega thought so too, as Ray never appeared again and Mighty appeared only once more. However, latter-day Sonic games such as Sonic Heroes frequently feature characters grouped into threes — one that can move fast, one that can fly, and one especially that is strong. If you think about it, these three attributes are reflected in the names of the leads in SegaSonic the Hedgehog. In the sense of light, a ray is an airborne thing, while the associations with the word mighty are obvious. In this sense, SegaSonic the Hedgehog’s take on the three-man team could be seen as a precursor to what appeared in later games.

Two other quick ones: A few Sonic games feature a ninja chameleon named Espio, and I only recently realized that the reference to the word espionage makes the name the most appropriate one ever for a ninja chameleon.

Sega jumped on the fighting game craze in 1996 with Sonic the Fighters, which had the various Sonic characters kicking the crap out of each other for no apparent reason. The cast included a character whose name bucks the pattern of “name + the + animal species” — a bomb-tossing duck saddled with the baffler Bean the Dynamite.

explosive waterfowl

The odd name references the lesser known Sega title Dynamite Dux, which starred ducks named Bin and Pin who also specialized in explosive devices.

The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Radio Jacko

Long story short: I went to Bakersfield for the first time, then went to Kernville for the first time, then went to Tulare County for the first time and finally rafted for the first time. This is what I consider an acceptable effort for my brother's thirtieth birthday.

However, I feel I must note now how I amused myself during my trip from Santa Barbara to Bakersfield. I forgot my iPod at home and had only my iPhone and the twenty or so songs I've loaded onto it to help me get through my work day. They don't make for good car music so I did something even braver than driving to Bakersfield: listening to the radio in Bakersfield. I picked a good day to attempt this, it turns out, because nearly every station was paying tribute to Michael Jackson. I got to play a fun game where I'd scan the dial for the next hit and see how long it would take between one and the other. Over the course of the trip, I heard "Thriller" twice in its entirety. I heard "Smooth Criminal" four times. I even heard "Beat It" in its regular English version but played on a Spanish station.

Very strange. Will never happen again.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Two: Name Origins for Mario, Donkey Kong and Wario

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather long “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


Characters in the Mario games tend to have more straightforward names, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t lend themselves to some inspection. In fact, one of the first video game-related posts I ever put on this blog concerned the odd linguistic associations that Mario and Luigi have.

The most logical place to start, then: the Italian-American stereotype himself, Mario.

left to right: landlord, evil, pizza man, and similarly evil

The story behind Mario’s name — as put forth in many reliable sources, including Chris Kohler’s book Power-Up — is that it comes from Mario Segale (or Mario Segali, depending on your sources), who was landlord for Nintendo of America’s office around the time Mario Bros. came out and who apparently bore a resemblance to the portly, mustachioed hero. Given the attitudes most people have for their landlords, I have to imagine the comparison wasn’t necessarily flattering. Mario’s debut a few years earlier in Donkey Kong billed him as Jumpman — which, as a name, kind of blows — so I suppose we should be happy that Nintendo staff decided to mock their landlord when they did. I have no reason to question the story other than the fact that I have never seen any proof that Mr. Segale actually exists. I’m not alone: One guy has even begun a website to try to track Mr. Segale down. Similarly, it’s generally accepted that Luigi got his name from Mario & Luigi’s, a pizza place alleged to have existed at some point near Nintendo of America’s Redmond, Washington, office.

Confusing the issue further, however, is the theory that Mario and Luigi got their names from the Japanese words marui and ruiji, which mean “round” and “similar” respectively. (The former is also related to the name of the Maru Mari, an item in the Metroid series that’s now known as the Morph Ball.) The marui-ruiji theory is probably wrong, but it’s still interesting to consider. Mario does have a bit of a paunch nowadays, though he looked trimmer back when he was first named. (Early video graphics were ill-equipped to portray slight tubbiness.) And Luigi did debut in Mario Bros. as a palette swap — that is, he had Mario’s sprite with a different color scheme.

early mario and luigi, with the latter looking pretty damn similar

The marui-ruiji theory might have ended up seeming more believable as the result of the explanation behind the names of the other two “plumber” characters, Wario and Waluigi. Among people who follow these things, it’s fairly well known that Wario’s name comes from the Japanese adjective warui, meaning “evil.” Warui plus Mario equals Wario, with the fact that “W” looks like an inverted “M” apparently being a happy coincidence. All in all, a good play on words.

Luigi’s evil counterpart, Waluigi, isn’t so lucky. That pesky “L”/“R” problem, which so often rears its head in transliterations between English and Japanese, causes warui and Luigi’s name to blend together less seamlessly. If Nintendo has only named its Number One Player Two Ruigi instead of Luigi, some of the awkwardness English-speakers perceive in Waluigi’s name would have been avoided. Waluigi — or, transliterated differently, Waruiji — also happens to be an anagram for the Japanese word ijiwaru, which means “bad-tempered.” As far as I know, this too is just a coincidence. Because Waluigi’s hat bears an inverted “L,” some depict the character’s name as 7uigi, which might be the most sensible way to refer to this character with the awkward, awkward name.

The wa- prefix characters mostly end there, as we have yet to be beset with a particularly un-ladylike Wapeach, an unhelpful Watoad, a peaceful Wabowser or a heroic Wawario. There has, however, been a Wayoshi, though not by that name. (See below, where I talk about Yoshi.)

Other main characters in the Mario games don’t offer as much to think about, at least from what I’ve found.

peachy progression

Given the series’ propensity for naming characters after food — a trend throughout Japanese pop culture, really — it doesn’t seem remarkable that the games’ iconic female character would be named after something sweet. Princess Peach’s name in its Japanese form, however, could also be represented in English as Pichi, or “Peachy,” which makes for an accurate description of her unflappably positive personality. Yes, she has an alternate name in the U.S., where she was introduced as Princess Toadstool and went by the that name until 1996. It’s all but forgotten now, and perhaps for the better: Toadstool is an ugly name for any universe’s epitome of femininity.

Nintendo has saddled the prolific cake-baker with some unfortunate feminine stereotypes throughout the years, including one that pertains especially to this discussion of games and words: Her Super Mario RPG attack Psych Bomb is known in the original Japanese as Hisuterikku Bomu, or “Hysteric Bomb,” which, on the etymological level, expresses a certain degree of misogyny.

bald bowser, blue bowser and the bowser we all know and hate

I could swear that I remember reading somewhere that “Koopa” — the name that Bowser, the games’ main antagonist, goes by in Japan and his last name in the United States — comes from a term for plateware in some Asian country. Can’t find it now, though it seems relevant that the word is sometimes written as Kuppa in certain instances of English text in Japanese games. I’ve also read that the word Koopa would match the Japanese pronunciation of a Korean rice soup that can be represented in English text as gug-bab or guk-bap or some other such combination of similar syllables, but I’d have to check that with a food-minded linguist before I could say this claim is accurate. Supporting the gug-bab theory is a statement Miyamoto apparently made in an interview indicating that he decided upon Koopa over two other names based on Korean dishes: Yukke (yukhoe) and Bibinbap (bi bim bap).

As for Bowser’s American-only first name, I’d propose that it could come either from a certain type of water or fuel tanker — which would make sense, given the character’s size — or from Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of the rock group Sha Na Na. (Less of a badass association than one might have hoped for, but few names could hold a candle to the name Bowser was introduced as in the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros.: Daimaō Kuppa, which translates either as “Great Demon King Koopa” or “Big Devil King Koopa.” And Bowser, regardless of its origin, is a hundred times cooler than Kerog, a mysterious alternate name the character has been stuck with in at least one piece of apparently Nintendo-sanctioned merchandise.)

Another theory as to the origin of the name Koopa relates it to a creature from Japanese mythology, the kappa. These water demons have little in common with the Super Mario Bros. villain other than that they like kidnapping people and are sometimes depicted as having turtle-like shells and beaks. In fact, the Japanese refer to the generic turtle enemies that Americans call Koopa or Koopa Troopa as Nokonoko, which translates to something like “unconcernedly,” apparently in reference to the way they stupidly walk in one direction without fear of being stomped or falling into holes. That their Japanese name sounds like the knock-knock noise their shells make when bouncing off a solid object is just a coincidence.

A quick aside: Kappas are common enough in Japanese culture that they show up pretty often in video games. They appear in Final Fantasy VI, as “imps,” and there’s also a pirate-accented one named Kapp’n in the Animal Crossing games that most American players would just assume was a turtle anyway. A major difference between kappas and turtles, however, is that the former has a hollow head filled with water that spills if they lean over. And if the water spills, the kappa dies. (So now you know what to do in an emergency.) The aspect of the creature is subtly reflected in Super Mario World, whose instruction manual identifies an area of the map as Kappa Mountain. The name never appears in the game itself, but it would appear to be named after the fact that a pond appearing on one part of the mountain looks a little like the water-filled depression in a kappa’s head.

clockwise from left: kappas as they appear in nature, kappa mountain, kapp’n, final fantasy’s kappas

Kappa Mountain, by the way, looks a hell of a lot more like a mountain on the map than the area that the game’s text actually refers to as such: Cookie Mountain, a stage in the fourth area that just might have inspired the name of TV on the Radio’s second album, Return to Cookie Mountain. I’ve never read any confirmation from the band that it’s true, though.

Back on the subject of Bowser, I have nothing to back up the Sha Na Na theory, but it seems less ludicrous than it might initially if considered alongside the names that Bowser’s seven awful children got when they were introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3. In order, the children were Larry Koopa, Morton Koopa Jr., Wendy O. Koopa, Iggy Koopa, Roy Koopa, Lemmy Koopa and Ludwig von Koopa — nearly all of whom have names that resemble those of famous musicians.

times two: iggy, morton, lemmy, ludwig, roy, wendy, larry, and bowser/bowzer

In order: Wendy O. Williams, Iggy Pop, Roy Orbison (whose habit of wearing sunglasses is shared by his Super Mario Bros. counterpart), Lemmy from Motörhead, and Ludwig von Beethoven. Morton would seem to take his name from the talk show host Morton Downey Jr., who was popular around the time Super Mario Bros. 3 was released. And Larry is a bit of a mystery, though I say the apparent reference to Downey has led some to assume his namesake is another talk show host, Larry King. Nintendo has never confirmed anything one way or the other, so this all remains just speculation, but it’s speculation that seems pretty damn likely, especially considering that subsequent Mario characters were also named after rock stars and the like — among them a boss in Super Mario World being apparently named for Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (Reader Kevin T points out that another possible source for the Reznor character could be a heater manufacturing company of the same name.) Years after introducing Bowser’s brood, Nintendo ditched them in favor of a single offspring with a far less cool namesake: Bowser Jr.

Less speculative are the name origins for Toad and Yoshi. The former, being an anthropomorphic mushroom, seems to take his name from the word toadstool, which seems a bit unimaginative given that Peach’s name also used to be Toadstool.

In addition to being a Japanese first name — for humans, that is — Yoshi’s name also serves in Japanese as an interjection meaning “Okay!” or “All right!” He is also one of the few major Mario characters to have a distinctly Japanese-sounding name worldwide, though some early and unofficial materials Anglicize his name as Yossy. (The legendary Kart Fighter, for example.)

Commenters have pointed out that Yoshi’s name has twice been used as an inspiration for similar characters. Mountainchops notes that Super Mario RPG featured a character named Boshi who, in the Japanese version, was called Washi or Waruishi, similar to how Wario is the evil Mario and Waluigi is the evil Luigi. And Elena notes that Dorrie, the sea serpent helper from Super Mario 64 and New Super Mario Bros., is named Doshi in Japan.

beloved mario characters say “hi, we lack identity!”

Toad and Yoshi also belong to a group of Mario characters whose names double as generic terms for all of their kind — that is, the name Toad can refer to the specific character Toad but also generically to any Average Joe mushroom head, even when these characters actually have their own name. For example, you could say that Toad’s female counterpart, Toadette, is a Toad. (I wonder what Nintendo will make of the playable Toads in the New Super Mario Bros. Wii announced at this year’s E3. Will they get names or will they just be Blue Toad and Yellow Toad?) Same for Yoshi, as well as for other characters like Birdo and Kamek. (I’ve previously written about these characters names and this very Japanese sense of self and group identity in this post.)

Speaking of Birdo, she has quite of few issues regarding her name, not that a character who suffers from so much gender confusion needs any more complications in her life. Birdo — whose Japanese name, Kyasarin, can be transliterated into English as either Catherine or Cassie, depending on who’s doing the transliterating — seems to get stuck with various names referring to animals of the feathered variety regardless of the fact that she looks like a dinosaur. Her name in Italy, for example, is Strutzi, which would seem to come from the Italian word struzzo, meaning “ostrich.” (I have up a separate post on Birdo’s bird-related name problems as well.)

Finally, Kamek — the broom-riding wizard Koopa — gets his name some the Japanese kame, meaning “turtle,” which seems odd given that all the Koopas are turtles. Why should just one guy get to claim that in his name?

And then there’s Donkey Kong. It so happens that the big ape has a name that’s probably made more people scratch their heads than any other video game character.

donkey kong: barrel-tosser, chest-thumper, necktie-wearer

His last name seems likes a clear reference to King Kong, but the Donkey part doesn’t make sense. Contrary to various urban legends that say otherwise, Donkey Kong earned his first name as a result of Miyamoto wanting to call the villain something that conveyed a sense of stubbornness and stupidity. He arrived at donkey. Miyamoto himself said as much in a 2001 interview he gave at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Thus, the name didn’t result from some butchering of Monkey Kong through a typo or communication error. Chris Kohler’s Power-Up also notes that the word kong had been used to mean “large” in Japanese ever since the 1933 King Kong.

It probably results only from people like me trying to put an English major spin on things, but there’s another theory about Donkey Kong’s name that, however implausible, put this character in an interesting literary context. Remember King Midas? The character from Greek mythology who can turn anything into gold just by touching it? There’s a less widely known story involving the very same character pissing off the god Apollo and winding up with a pair of donkey ears. Apparently a heightened sense of hearing did little to allay the concerns of Midas, who found the ears to be unbecoming of a king, so he did everything he could to conceal his condition. In a loose sense, this sets up a dichotomy between kings and donkeys that is reflected in Donkey Kong’s name, but only if you compare it to King Kong’s — that is, the video game character is such a galoot that he’s the opposite of a king. It’s a stretch, I’ll admit, but the theory allows for a way to view the character.

left: “little.” middle: “little,” in a different sense. right: “tenth.”

Probably because the latter-day Donkey Kong games are often developed by non-Japanese publishers, a lot of the names of the characters in them are less mysterious. I recently found out, however, that Diddy Kong — Donkey’s main sidekick and the character that essentially replaced Donkey Kong Jr. — got his name from a British term meaning “small.” And “small,” I suppose, is a good substitute for “junior.”

The first name of the other sidekick, Dixie Kong, means “tenth.” Though I’d like to report that her debut marked the tenth Donkey Kong game, it would require some funky math to make that work. The fact that she wears pink — she’s the girl, get it? — is actually also appropriate in light of how the character is, like Diddy, a diminutive sidekick for Donkey Kong. Just as “little” Diddy Kong replaced Donkey Kong Jr., Dixie could be seen as a successor to a fairly obscure character that appeared in the edutainment title Donkey Kong Jr. Math: a pink ape whose name, for all practical purposes, also seems to be Donkey Kong Jr. I prefer to call him Pinky Kong, because palette swaps aside, calling them both Junior is a little messed up.

Perhaps coincidentally, both Diddy and Dixie’s names function as codes in the games they debut in. In Donkey Kong Country, the Diddy code — entering down, Y, down, down Y on the contol pad, effectively spelling out “D-Y-D-D-Y” — allows the player to access the game’s bonus rounds. In the sequel, Diddy’s Kong-Quest, a similar code — down, Y, X, Y, or “D-Y-X-Y” — also unlocks hidden features. I have no clue if the characters’ names were chosen with possible codes that could be entered using the buttons on the Super Nintendo control pad in mind.

Daisy, the Mario games’ Girl Number Two, happens to have a five-letter name that doubles as a generic English noun, just like Peach. Since Miyamoto named Zelda in honor of the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, I wonder if Daisy could have been named after a certain fictional woman associated with Fitzgerald: Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. Unlike most Mario characters, however, Daisy was created by the late Nintendo pioneer, Gunpei Yokoi, so it would seem just as likely that she, like Peach, would take her name from a word named for a pleasant, organic thing.

the many faces of princess daisy

On the subject of Daisy, there’s an interesting but non-name-related theory about her and how the evolution of her appearance eventually had her stealing the face and overall look of Azalea, a Mario series C-stringer and one of the humans who appear in the Mario Golf series. I talk about all this in a previous post, so check it out if you’d like proof that Daisy is an identity thief.

pauline, from her pixelated days to more shapely and more current

It’s also addressed in a previous post, but might as well bring it up here: Pauline, the first Mario damsel and the heroine of the original Donkey Kong, is named after Polly James, wife of onetime Nintendo of America warehouse manager Don James. She presumably picked up the name when the title reached the U.S. and Nintendo staffers realized that her original Japanese name, simply Lady, wouldn’t cut it. I’d always presumed that she took her name after the often-kidnapped and sometimes-tied-to-railroad-tracks heroine Pauline, as in The Perils of Pauline, but the two imperiled Paulines seem to have come into existence separately. And based of the fact that Mario, Luigi and Pauline all seem to have been named after real-life entities familiar to early Nintendo of America employees, I wonder if there might be a living, breathing namesake for Stanley the Bugman, the Mario stand-in insect exterminator from Donkey Kong 3.

Super Mario Galaxy introduced Rosalina — less a damsel and more of a benevolent lady Galactus with the power to control the cosmos. But despite being one of the mightiest female characters I the whole Mario series, Rosalina suffers from an identity crisis in that she seems to go by a different name in most translations of the Galaxy, much more so than most major series characters do. In Spanish-speaking territories in North America, she’s still Rosalina, but to Spanish-speakers in Europe, she’s Estela, “tail end of a comet.” In France, she’s Harmonie, “harmony,” and in Italy she’s Rosalinda.

the space queen, her glinda the good witch prototype, and the loveliest orbit of all

Only in Japan, however, does Rosalina get a name befitting her status as a beautiful creature existing in deep space: Rosetta. Though it sounds stereotypically diminutive, feminine, and pretty — and indeed it can be, if referring to a rose-cut diamond — there’s a good chance that the character’s creators were actually going for the rosetta orbit, which happens when a celestial body approaches a black hole, begins oscillating, and traces a vague rose-shaped pattern.

As I discuss in a post on Super Mario RPG villain Valentina, I’m willing to bet that Nintendo nixed her original Japanese name — either Margarita or Margarie Margarita, depending on your source — from the English version to keep alcohol references out of the game. (A similar decision resulted in the name of the Wine River being changes to Midas River in the U.S. release.) What’s weird, though, is that she still carries a cocktail glass with her — curiously not a margarita but what looks like a martini.

I’ve always thought that another Super Mario RPG character, Mallow, had a name that might be more clever than it might initially seem. The puffy little weather wizard is one of a handful of male Mario characters to fall into that aforementioned category of characters named after pleasant objects. (Compare Pine in Yoshi’s Safari, Peasley in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga or Cricket in WarioWare: Smooth Moves.) And though the name Mallow makes sense for this character, as he is soft and sweet like a marshmallow, there’s an added layer of meaning to his name, even if the crew that named him might not have intended it.


Today, marshmallows are probably one of the least organic food products in existence. Back in the day, however, the candy was made from a paste derived the plant Althaea officianalis, a member of the mallow family that grows near marshes. This is appropriate to the character because he grows up at a kind of marsh — namely the Tadpole Pond, where his infant self washed up one day and was raised by the local frogfolk, hence why Mallow spends most of the game telling people he’s a tadpole. So Mallow’s name is a double reference — to the character’s spongy body and to the fact that he’s literally a marsh Mallow, if you want to look at it that way. Like I said, probably not an intentional reference, but a neat one.

As a character who debuted a haunted house game like Luigi’s Mansion, E. Gadd’s name seems appropriate. Obviously, it’s a pun on egad, which is what a person might yell if he saw a ghost… and, also, if this person were especially formal and living in a different time period. The name is more interesting in Japanese. There, he’s Oya Mā Hakasehakase meaning “professor” and oya mā meaning something like “oh my!” However, since E. Gadd was designed by Nintendo’s Yoshiyuki Oyama, it seems probable that he named the character after himself. A double reference.

Two of Wario’s damsels — Queen Merelda in Wario Land: Shake It and Princess Shokora in Wario Land Advance — both keep up the tradition of women being named after things that are pretty, taste good, smell nice or are adorably small. If Peach is pink, Daisy is yellow, Pauline is Red, and Rosalina is blue, then Merelda is very clearly green. It’s appropriate, then, that her name happens to be an anagram for emerald as well as just one syllable shy of esmeralda, a given name meaning “emerald” and the Spanish and Portuguese word for this gem. (In German, notably, she’s Midori — the Japanese word for “green” and a common bright green liqueur.) Despite not having a brown color scheme, Shokora’s name is a Japanese approximation for either chocolate or the French chocolat, depending on the source. For more on Merelda, see a previous post specifically about her; and see the Shokora post for more on her.

chocolate, a green gem, the famous painting (?), and the child bride of satan

The food name theme is especially prevalent in the Wario games, what with him sparring with the likes of Captain Syrup, Count Cannoli, Carpaccio, and Tiaramisu, the last of whom has such a clunker name that I gave her a spot on this series’ list of the worst names in video games. This is less common in the WarioWare series, where characters tend to be named after inedible objects — 9-Volt and 18-Volt after batteries, Cricket and Mantis after insects, and kindergarten ninjas Kat and Ana after the Japanese sword katana, which their names form when merged. I’ve wondered if Mona might be named directly after the famous painting, but it could be something that Nintendo retroactively decided to ape with all the “Mona Pizza” jokes. (EDIT: I recently learned that the Mona Lisa imagery that we in the U.S. got in WarioWare: Twisted! did not appear in the Japanese version. Weird.) And gloomy little Ashley was probably named to hint at a fire-and-brimstone badness that Ashley herself would probably like. The character elicited some accusations of Satanic leanings as a result of a supposed backward-coded message in WarioWare: Touched!. I have an old post on it, and even if you think you’ve heard the story, I think it’s more complicated than most know.

A while back, a German Mario told me that in his country, Petey Piranha is named Mutant Tyranha and is female — which would make sense, considering the strangeness of a male character framed in flower petals and wearing polka dotted bikini briefs. Years later, I’ve found that Petey’s gender switch may not apparently be the case, at least according to this site, which notes Mutant Tyranha as just being “gender neutral.” So I guess I’m no longer sure, though it seems at least worth noting that the character’s Spanish name, Floro Piraña, is male but the French one, Flora Piranha, is female, at least as far as grammar goes.

foreman spike: let’s not call him blackie, okay?

Foreman Spike — the bad guy in the Wrecking Crew games and a Wario look-alike — is known in Japan as Blackie. As it’s noted in this post, there’s a theory that the character’s Japanese name might alternately be translated as Breaky, which would be more in line with the game’s theme of demolition.

And, finally, to close out this Mario-themed post, three nearly forgotten characters from Super Mario Bros. 2.

anony-pixie, wart (but more often mamu), and the famous clawglip

I have written about each in an earlier post, so go there for the meat of these matters. Remember those fairies freed from the jar at the end of the game? Do they actually have names? And Wart, the game’s big bad: He’s been MIA ever since, not counting the many remakes. In this post, I talk about how it’s funny how his cameo in the Zelda title Link’s Awakening would assign him the name Mamu — Japanese for “wart”and a name he hadn’t gone by since his Doki Doki Panic days. And in the original, NES edition of Super Mario Bros. 2, a glaring instance of Engrish introduced the world to Clawglip instead of Clawgrip. In this post, I say the first Mario character created specifically for western audiences deserved better.

I’m ending this post with two of the most minor characters in any Mario game ever: the Jellyfish sisters, Merri and Gigi. These twin masseuses appear briefly in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. Like many characters pairs in this game, Merri and Gigi mirror the Mario Bros. in that one sister wears red while the other wears green. When they introduced themselves, something about their names seemed familiar. It popped into my head later, long after I’d finished the game: Merri’s name is essentially Mario’s with the last syllable chopped off, while Gigi’s is just the last syllable of Luigi’s name. That’s a sneaky one there, Nintendo. It makes me wonder how many others have escaped my notice.

Super Paper Mario introduces a shapeshifting villain named Mimi. This vain, prissy character can make herself look like anyone and frequently takes on whatever form will cause the most trouble. Her name is notable in that it’s one letter short of the word mimic, which is what she does. But also, interpreted literally, the name Mimi can be read as “me me,” which is also relevant to the character in that she takes on alternate personas — that is, more than one “me” — and also that she’s such a narcissist — all “me,” all the time.

Other Mario-related posts:
The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

And Then Work Stopped

And then all talk about Farrah Fawcett ceased and no one would ever mention her again without noting that, at the end of the story, her death was completely overshadowed by the apparent death of Michael Jackson. And that’s even if MJ turns out to still be alive.

Somewhere in South Carolina, Mike Sanford is fist-pumping and saying “YES! YES!”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Lost Treasure of Piso Mojado

Three recent instances of noteworthy naming.

Moppetkill Grass

UCSB recently staged a control burn of its campus lagoon “island” — which is not an island at all, but that’s not the point of this post — in order to rid the landmass of a particular nonnative grass. Its name: ripgut brome. The weed earns scorn from preservationists for being a Mediterranean species that can easily overtake new climates and block out plants that had previously grown in these spots. It’s also hated by pet owners and sock enthusiasts for being a source of foxtails. However, I’d say its name alone would be reason enough for ripgut brome to be frowned upon. It’s a horrifically violent first name, followed by a sterile and imposing last name. I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s words on the subject of crab grass: “There's nothing wrong with crab grass. It just has a bad name, that's all. Everyone would love it if it had a cute name like elf grass.”

Operation Lobster Fortnight Zingo

Reading a news article recently, I learned of an entity called Operation Joint Hammer, the U.S. component of a globe-spanning network of law enforcement agency that aims to stop child pornographers. Operation Joint Hammer is an amazing name for such a venture, as the joint part evokes the fact that this group is a single cog in a more complex machine, while the hammer brings to mind a definitive, physical smackdown of evil-doers. The same article, however, notes that the European component of this effort is named Operation Koala. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why it would adopt this name. I suppose it would be slightly more logical for the Australian portion of this effort to bear the name, and even then the cuddly, slow-moving connotations that anyone should make with the word koala seem to overshadow the group’s actually purpose. If anyone can explain where Operation Koala got its name, I’d like to hear it. All a Google search turned up was this, which seems to be space aliens traveling through paintings and which also doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything.

The Fury of Furies

Last week I suffered from a brief bout of geek amnesia that caused me to forgot the name of the woman who leads the Female Furies, a group of hard-hitting, tough-loving women who reside on the less-than-pleasant Apokolips in the DC comics universe. The leader, of course, is Granny Goodness, who’s entirely bad, of course. Looking on the Wikipedia page for the Female Furies, however, reminded me how amazing the members’ names are, as far as being ridiculous, punny and nonetheless appropriate things to call women whose chief personality characteristic is a proclivity toward violence. My favorites, in ascending order:
  • Stompa — see, because she’s on the heavy side.
  • Artemiz — and yes, the actual Artemis would go by that particular honorific tile.
  • Knockout — really, I can’t imagine how there hadn’t been a superhero or supervillain already named this.
  • Speed Queen — who, thankfully, is female.
  • Bernadeth — which is the best name for anyone ever. If I have a daughter, I’m naming her Bernadeth.
Nixed from the list: Mad Harriet and Alice Vundabar, just because they seem like near-riffs on Alice in Wonderland characters but just fall short.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Whatever It Is, Whatever It Was

This late 80s-to-early 90s commercial for Hershey’s Whatchamacallit bar takes me back almost more than words can express… to a time when this would play about every fifteen minutes on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons.

I also can’t get over how much the band singing the jingle reminds me of Luscious Jackson.

Food, previously:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Family That Slays Together

While watching the first and last episodes of the third season of Venture Bros. with Jesse last night, I was suddenly struck with the realization that this show seems weirdly overpopulated with redheaded characters.

clockwise from top-left: dr. venture, the monarch, molotov cocktease, dr. quymn

And that’s leaving out Dean and Jonas Jr., both of whom have that kind of brown hair that looks kinda-sorta red. But they’re related to Dr. Venture and therefore less notable. And, of course, there’s apparently a popular theory that Venture and Quymn are actually siblings as well. Still, the fact that the family patriarch, his arch-enemy, and the series femme fatale would all have red hair is a little weird.

Sex Bug

In short: one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a long time.

Slightly longer: In the process of putting together the big post, I stumbled across this, which is apparently a cartoon show tie-in to the Adventure Island games, only mysteriously centered on the bee equivalent of a Playboy Bunny. I know nothing of this. I’m not even sure whether the related game came before the cartoon show or after. And although I initially wanted to know more about it — like, for example, whether the title was Takahashi Meijin no Bugutte Honey or Takahashi Meijin no Bug-tte Honey, both of which seem to mean Master Takahashi’ Honey the Bug — I eventually just decided to take a pass on this one and make up what I thought it was about.

My take: An evil bee lady magically kidnaps children to a place where they have to ride skateboards on a stroke-inducing epilepsy landscape. Bee lady prevents a large but somewhat effeminate dinosaur from rescuing the children, mostly because she plans to use her inappropriate sexiness as a means to implant them with eggs. In all, a daring but ahead-of-its-time foray into children’s fantasy horror, remembered mostly today on account of its theme song.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Blue-Eyed, Dressed for Every Situation

The word of the week: It’s a synthpop band, a river, a tributary river in the generic sense, a city, a record label, and a lot more than most words get to be.
yazoo (YAZ-oo or ya-ZOO) — noun: a tributary that runs parallel to a river (especially when separated by a natural levee).
Excluding the hydrologists and potamologists who read this blog, this word should be familiar to most people as the name of the 80s band who released the song “Situation.”

I know what you’re saying: Drew, you idiot, the band that sang “Situation” was Yaz, not Yazoo. You’re half-right, though I wouldn’t have thought so until recently. The band does call itself Yaz in the U.S., but only because it ended up getting sued when it attempted to cross over from the U.K. to here with its original name, Yazoo. Those two end letters meant a lot of money, at least to the American band already calling itself Yazoo, about which we know nothing today. According to Wikipedia, Yazoo —the famous one, I mean — took its name from the record label Yazoo Records, which boasts all manner of roots music, including some acts I’ve heard of, like Ma Rainey and Blind Willie Johnson, and some I haven’t, like some guy who called himself Barbecue Bob.

Given that a lot of these acts seemed to have originated in the American South, it could well be that the label got its name from Mississippi’s Yazoo River, notable because it parallels the Mississippi River, which in turn gave rise to the term yazoo tributary and as well as just plain yazoo. And the river got its name from the apparently extinct Yazoo tribe of Native Americans, who formerly lived at the mouth of the river. The official site of Yazoo County lists a ton of variant spellings — among them, Yachou, Yasoux, Yasoons, Illasus, others — that eventually gave way to Yazoo. No one knows what the name meant to the people who coined it. That mystery notwithstanding, I like the that the word has persisted, if only in rivers and bands… and one more place.

In light of this past week on this blog and what I’m going to call “the big post”, I was hoping to get away from games-‘n’-names for a bit, but I Googled “yazoo etymology” and the first hit to appear, at least for me, was a link to a page explaining the Final Fantasy VII character Yazoo, which I didn’t know about until today. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

One last note: Until I looked up the lyrics for “Situation,” I’d always thought the opening line was “Though I dress for every situation.” Nope.

Previous words of the week:
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Crawl or Wiggle

I have issues with the name “Margo” and its variants. Nothing against the various any Margo or Margot or Margeaux I’ve actually met, but I have an unfortunate association with the name, no matter how it’s spelled. Back in seventh grade, I had to read and write a paper on The Diary of Anne Frank, and, in doing so, realized that my version of Microsoft Word didn’t recognize the name of Anne’s sister, Margot. The spell check suggested that I might have actually meant either “maggot” or “marmot.”

To this day that’s the first thing I think of when I met a Margo or a Margot or a Margeax — “Maggot or marmot?” It’s as if every one of them has to be one or the other.

But really, I have nothing against the people themselves.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part One: Name Origins for Legend of Zelda

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather long “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


Because Zelda inspired the title of this collection, I might as well start with it. Unlike the Nintendo series Super Mario Bros., which takes its name from its heroes, the Legend of Zelda series take its name from its damsel in distress, which seems odd in that the princess didn’t play a significant role in the games until fairly recently.

zelda then, zelda now and the triforce

Several sites, however, suggest that Princess Zelda’s name could have some relation to the game’s symbol, the Triforce, a triangular icon that represents the virtues of strength, wisdom and courage. According to this site, at least, the Greek letter delta, essentially a triangle in its written form, would be rendered in Japanese katakana as zeruda, which is also how the character’s name could be rendered in katakana.

As plausible as this all may seem, however, it probably had nothing to do with how the character got her name. The game’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, has said in an interview that he took the character’s name from Zelda Fitzgerald: “[Zelda Fitzgerald] was a famous and beautiful woman from all accounts, and I liked the sound of her name. So I took the liberty of using her name for the very first Zelda title,” he’s quoted as saying. Nonetheless, Nintendo itself seemed to offer some tacit endorsement of the Zelda-delta theory in Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, in which Zelda initially goes by a different name, Tetra, which means “four” — figuratively, the “three” of delta plus one, if you wanted to think about numerically. Also, the technical term for a four-paneled pyramid — which is what the Triforce would be if it existed in three dimensions — is tetrahedron.

The series hero, Link, also deserves a bit of onomastic speculation. His name isn’t unheard of outside of video games; there’s actually a character with that name and with that spelling in To Kill a Mockingbird, though, more often, you see the name as Linc, an abbreviation for Lincoln. Again, Nintendo itself has had some fun with the name. The title of the third Zelda game, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, makes a pun on his name. And in any game, Link, as the game’s stand-in for the player, also serves as a link between the video game and the human world on the other side.

link the lefty: original art, original sprite, and the current look

Finally, links is German for “left,” which would mean nothing if the guy wasn’t traditionally depicted as holding his sword in his left hand. (If you’ve only played the “dyslexic,” Wii version of Twilight Princess, this significance would likely be lost on you, as Nintendo flipped the game so that characters would be holding their Wiimotes in the same hand as Link holds his sword.) In my book, this merits a mention because Link is the only major video game hero that I can think of who is a southpaw.

You’d think I’d have something to say about Zelda’s big bad, but I actually haven’t yet dug up much up on him, even though he has the linguistically enticing name Ganondorf Dragmire. And I have no idea why Nintendo chose to switch his name from Gannon, as it’s stated in the first game, to Ganon in Zelda II: Adventure of Link, and then to Ganondorf in Link to the Past onward. It seems that now Ganon — one “N” — refers to his more hulking, monster form and Ganondorf to his human form. Crazy demon logic.

gannon, ganon, and ganondorf

There’s something to be said about a few supporting characters, however. Some time back I posted about a sagely but almost forgotten Zelda character named Sahasrahla. Goofy, who blogs over at Bradshaw of the Future, pointed out that his name is probably a corruption of the Hindu term sahasrara, which refers to the seventh primary chakra — “the thousand-petaled lotus, located over the fontanel,” in Goofy’s words.

Link’s trusty steed, Epona, would seem to take her name from a Celtic horse goddess. (She’s the one associated with the Uffington White Horse, though erroneously.)

Throughout various Zelda games, Link has been accompanied by attendant fairies that point out this or that and explain things the player might not otherwise know. It’s been pointed out a few places online that their names would reflect this: Navi (“navigator”) in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Tatl (“tattle”) in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the latter of whom has a brother appropriately named Tael.

etymologically: splish-splash on the left, roly-poly on the right

Throughout many of the Zelda games, Link encounters some human-like but decidedly not totally human folks: among then, the Gorons and the Zoras. Gorons are bulky things who live in the mountains and tend to tumble down hillsides like boulders, while Zoras are fishy things who live in the water and who in some games take their orders from a fat, lazy whale named Lord Jabu-Jabu. Both sets of creatures have some relation to Japanese onomatopoeia. The name Goron resembles goro goro, the Japanese term for a rumbling sound not unlike that of a rolling rock. And the bloated fish, immobile though he is, shares his name with another Japanese word for the sound of splashing water. (Not sure where Zora comes from. Fitzgerald and such literary connections aside, Zora Neale Hurston seems unlikely.)

In Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Nintendo made a nice gesture to longtime players by naming several supporting characters after towns that appeared in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link — namely Saria, Darunia, Ruto, Rauru, Nabooru, and Mido. For the life of me, however, I’ve never been able to figure out where any of the names came from in the first place. Even more curious is that one final Zelda II town has no apparent Ocarina of Time character named after it: Kasuto. This omission actually seems appropriate in light of the fact that Zelda II’s Kasuto is abandoned, its residents having hightailed to a hidden town, New Kasuto. In a sense, it’s appropriate that the one town that is empty or obscured either lacks a character counterpart or simply has a very well hidden one. Equally perplexing is an Ocarina of Time character who aids Link in his adventure: a talking owl with the exceptionally strange name of Kaepora Gaebora. If anyone can offer a theory as to where these folks get their names, I’d love to hear it.

Something that’s a little less mysterious: There’s a location in a lot of Zelda games by the name of Kakariko Village. By most accounts, it is inspired by the noise made by the chickens that so often inhabit the place.

pickled on the left, fungal on the right

There’s a recurring pair of decrepit twin witches, Koume and Kotake, whose names in Japanese refer to a type of pickled plum and a mushroom, respectively. And those seems like appropriate enough names for two wrinkled, malevolent things.

but his saying so isn’t. understand?

And finally, there’s Error — a character who appears only in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. For most of the game, he says only what you see above: “I am Error.” Very strange. Later in the game, another character actually refers to Error by his name, proving that his name is actually what he says — that is, the text doesn’t read the way it does as the result of an actual error. One might think that Error results from a mangled translation of the name Errol, which in the context of a Zelda game would make sense, given the swashbuckling associations the name carries. That wouldn’t appear to be the case, however. The linguistically minded point out that had the character’s name been intended to be Errol, it would have been rendered differently in the original Japanese text than it was. Others, however, claim that Error’s name is, in fact, an in-joke and cite another character as supporting this: a guy named Bagu, who just happens to be a palette swap for Error and whose name also happens to sound a lot like the word “bug” — as in a computer error. But I’m not sure this is necessarily the case. Wherever Error’s name comes from, the fact that it seems like a goof resulted in him becoming a meme among the Nintendo-literate. Nintendo even acknowledged this years later with an in-joke in Super Paper Mario.

Legend of Zelda, previously:
The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:
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