Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ax Is Not Equal to Battler: What’s the Deal With the Equals Signs in Golden Axe?

A personal challenge for my geekish tendencies: In this post, I will relate an obscure punctuational phenomenon to video games and a luxury hotel. Go!

So back when I was a kid, a staple of pizza party birthdays was Golden Axe, a swords-and-sorcery beat-em-up released by Sega in 1989. (You know which one I’m talking about, people my age. This is the game where you would beat up little gremlins to get magic potions and where you could ride those weird animals with chicken beaks and whiplike tails. Ah, memories.) As with all arcade games, Golden Axe had an “attract mode” that gave the machine something to do when no one was playing. In addition to the typical “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” card, this particular game’s attract mode flashed pictures of the three playable characters and the big bad.

Visual aids, courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101:

See those weird equals signs between the characters’ first and last names? (Or, rather, what a Japanese person thought should pass for appropriate, Western-sounding first and last names? Though I must admit that I wish my name were Gilius Thunderhead.) What’s the deal? Well, this message thread — a collection of little-known video game facts that I previously linked to sometime back — points out that the symbols are actually double hyphens, a fairly rare punctuation mark used in the following instances:
  • When a nonstylized hyphen simply looks too boring, because you’re fancy like that.
  • On a related note, it’s officially a double hyphen that separates the two parts of the name Waldorf=Astoria.
  • In Merriam-Webster dictionaries, a word that normally would be hyphenated but that is split between two lines gets a double hyphen in order to demonstrate that the word’s internal punctuation should remain at all times, not just when it spans the end of a line.
  • And, finally, in certain contexts, a double hyphen separates first and last names. When writing in katakana characters, an em dash or a regular hyphen normally does this job. However, if this symbol could be mistaken for a prolonged sound mark (ー), the double hyphen does the job. It also sometimes gets to separate multiple foreign names. The example Wikipedia gives for this is the Russel-Einstein Manifesto, which in katakana would look like a bunch of symbols most of you can’t read with what looks like an equals sign in the middle.
So there you go. Though the Japanese usages don’t quite seem to fit the instance seen in Golden Axe, it seems likely that the double hyphens there resulted simply from a designer’s effort to separate first names from last names, Giliuses from Thunderheads. Next time you’re staying at the Waldorf, playing Golden Axe with a bunch of 1990s-era children, or simply struck with the realization that your hyphens look to ordinary, you have options.

A video game-specific follow-up: Those chicken things? With the saddles and the whiptails?

They have a species name, I’ve learned: bizzarians. Or bizarrians, depending on who is typing.

And remember:

… But they do spend all day plunking quarters into a arcade machine slicked over with pizza grease. Thank you, William Sessions.


  1. This is actually fairly common in German, too. The double-hyphen is used where a word crosses a line break, at least in older books. I don't think it happens too much anymore, though.

  2. BTW - realization that your hyphens look too ordinary

  3. I had no idea that punctuation mark even existed! I've learned so much since I was fired! Wow! Thanks asshole job for giving me the free time to LEARN AGAIN!


  4. Though I do not claim to be an expert on the Japanese language or Japanese writing customs, I have been studying Japanese for almost two years, and I have never encountered a double hyphen (didn't even know they existed--and, for the record, how can one tell the difference between a double hyphen and an equals sign?). (Also, I feel like the term "double hyphen" should be hyphenated, just because it would feel appropriate.) What is typically used to separate words in a multi-word phrase (such as a name) in katakana is not a double hyphen, single hyphen or dash, but a dot (or interpunct): ・
    The wikipedia entry for Japanese punctuation, however, does note that the interpunct (or "katakana middle dot") is sometimes used "as a substitute for a double hyphen."

  5. Chuck: As the linked Wikipedia page notes, the double hyphen is not standard; the dot usually does the job. However, in instances where other punctuation could be confusing, the double hyphen does the job. The page doesn't say this, but I'd bet that the Japanese double hyphen is just a loan from Western languages, especially since it has a history of marking places where "yes, there is a split" versus "no, these two go together." In fact, I'd bet that the use in Waldorf=Astoria exists for the same reasons as the Russel-Einstein Manifesto one does: A desire two show that two names printed in succession are not, in fact, a person's name --- that is, there is no Mr. Waldorf Astoria and no Mr. Russel Einstein. The matter is complicated because the words being separated in Golden Axe actually are first and last names, but at this point the Japanese use of this mark may have expanded or been misinterpreted. After all, video games of the era are known for butchering English.

    As it's mentioned in this article and the Wikipedia page, the difference between the equals sign and the double hyphen is that the edges of the latter are slightly sheared. It's hardly noticeable, of course, but I feel it's helped someone by the fact that the two marks would almost never be used in similar contexts. Now that you know how some people sometimes use the double hyphen, you will probably not mistake it for an equals sing.