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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