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The Origins of Video Game Character Names

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Today's awesome geekery: It's a Secret to Everybody, an amazingly extensive article on the origins of various video game character names. Ever wondered where the name Zelda (from The Legend of Zelda) came from? How about Link? How about Mario, Luigi, Bowser (aka Koopa), Toad, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, and many, many more? Read this article to find out. Some choice snippets:

The [Legend of Zelda] series hero, Link, deserves a bit of onomastic speculation too. 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. Nintendo itself has had some fun with Link’s 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.

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 fact 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.) That last part probably amounts to nothing, but it’s nonetheless merits a mention for the only major video game hero that I can think of who is a southpaw.

(Ed. note -- never heard the term 'onomastic'? It's the study of proper names.)

Given the [Super Mario] 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, however, can be literally translated from its Japanese representation into English as Pichi, or “Peachy,” which makes for an accurate description of her unflappably positive personality. Yes, she has 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 over 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.

Truly amazing work. For more great writing from this guy, check out Drew Mackie's Back of the Cereal Box blog. It's full of crunchy goodness. (Via Waxy.org.)

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Words
How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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