Ben Zimmer: “A Monster Of a Name Has Taken On a Life Of Its Own”

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “A Monster Of a Name Has Taken On a Life Of Its Own”:

Godzilla, that prehistoric mega-lizard supercharged by nuclear radiation, is stomping its way onto the silver screen yet again. In the 36th installment of the Godzilla franchise, the King of the Monsters is taking on its gigantic counterpart, King Kong. “Godzilla vs. Kong”…

The enduring appeal of Godzilla as a pop-cultural icon is evident from the creature’s name becoming a symbol of gargantuan power, in contexts far removed from monster movies. When the grounded container ship the Ever Given got pulled out of the Suez Canal by supersize tugboats earlier this week, one maritime expert said that the 3,700-ton Alp Guard was “the Godzilla of tugboats.”

“Godzilla” is an Anglicization of the original Japanese name, “Gojira,” from the 1954 movie in which the monster made its debut. Producers from Toho Studios developed the film under the code name “Project G,” for “giant.” Sometime after hiring Ishiro Honda to direct, they hit upon the name “Gojira,” which blends two Japanese words: “gorira” meaning “gorilla” and “kujira” meaning “whale.” The combination conveys the creature’s giant size and its provenance in the depths of the ocean, where it was awakened by atomic bomb tests….

For the film’s American release in 1956, Toho Studios chose to transliterate the name as “Godzilla.” The spelling recalled “gorilla,” with the “dz” letter sequence intended to represent the “j” sound in the original Japanese. When it became an American hit, however, the name was reinterpreted in English as a combination of “God” and “zilla.”…

“Godzilla” lumbered in a more metaphorical direction as it got used for other things characterized by gigantic proportions or a frightening disposition. In a 1964 dispatch from the set of his latest movie, Bob Hope was dubbed “Godzilla of the fairways” for his habit of swinging a golf club dangerously close to his co-stars….

A 1995 Boston Globe article revealed that “Bridezilla” was “the name wedding consultants bestow on brides who are particularly difficult and obnoxious.” That appellation got even more attention when the reality television show “Bridezillas” premiered in 2004.

In the wake of “bridezilla” came mashups like “promzilla,” for a high-school girl who goes overboard planning her prom, and “momzilla” for a super-controlling mother. As Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky puts it, the “-zilla” suffix now connotes “size, significance, awesomeness or fearsomeness.”

Sometimes those qualities get amplified even further, as when Ford Motors recently teased a new twin-turbo engine nicknamed “Megazilla.” Nearly seven decades after its inception, “Godzilla” keeps rampaging through the English lexicon.

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news.

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