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The Origins of Video Game Character Names

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
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

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