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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