Home >Industry >Media >‘Godzilla’: A monster of a name has taken on a life of its own

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.

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," simultaneously in theaters and streaming, is shaping up to be a monster hit in more ways than one.

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 told the Washington Post 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.

That much is clear, but still, “the name’s origins remain mysterious," according to a biography of Honda published by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski in 2017. One story often repeated by Honda and the producers claimed that “Gojira" started off as the nickname for a burly member of the Toho film crew. But the director’s widow insisted that this was just a tall tale, and assistant director Koji Kajita remarked, “Those of us who were closest to them don’t even know how and why they came up with ‘Gojira.’"

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."

Over the decades of the “Godzilla" franchise, filmmakers came up with new variations on the theme, such as the robotic “Mechagodzilla," introduced in the 1974 film “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" (and making a return in the new film).

“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 in a Birmingham News headline “Godzilla of the fairways" for his habit of swinging a golf club dangerously close to his co-stars. And a New York Times article the following year referred to “the institutional investor, that Godzilla of the financial world."

Eventually, just the “-zilla" ending was enough to suggest monstrosity—similar to how “Franken-" was spun off from “Frankenstein." Early examples directly alluded to the cinematic creature, such as a 1976 item in a Maine newspaper that imagined “a pet monster named ‘Goat-zilla’ that eats trash and never gets full." 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 Motorsrecently teased a new twin-turbo engine nicknamed “Megazilla." Nearly seven decades after its inception, “Godzilla" keeps rampaging through the English lexicon.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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