Like all the best “adults”, I have become irrepressibly obsessed with Pokémon Go. My neighbours think I’ve gone insane, I’ve forgotten what my husband looks like and I think I’m developing a crush on Professor Willow. This is my cry for help.
In an attempt to rationalise this new obsession, I’ve decided to look at the etymology of the Pokémon names used in English.
As a general rule, a Pokémon’s name tends to reflect their characteristics or appearance, but they do so in a variety of different ways and with influences from a number of different languages as well as scientific terminology and mythology.
Pokémon are a Japanese concept and their roots are clear to see in many of the creatures’ names. For example a Kabuto (which is encased in a shell) is the Japanese word for helmet and the name Chinchou is a corruption of the Japanese word for lantern (chōchin). Arguably the most adorable of all Pokémon is the Pikachu, and the origins of its name, which combine both English and Japanese are equally as delightful. A pika is a small mouse-like mammal characterised by its round body, while chu is the Japanese word for “squeak”. N’awww.
A lot of Pokémon names are portmanteaus (another favourite topic of mine – see this link). Sometimes these portmanteaus use the English language like the Croconaw (crocodile + gnaw). Others, draw from Japanese, like Entei which combined enten (blazing heat) and kotei (emperor).
Other clever wordplay includes Ekans, which is snake backwards and Arbok, which is Kobra backwards. No guesses for what these guys look like. A Girafarig is a giraffe-like Pokémon and this is clear to see in its name but that’s not all, the Girafarig has a second head on its tail and this is reflected by the fact that the name reads the same backwards as forwards.
English and Japanese are not the only languages used in the Pokémon naming process. The Ho-oh is a reference to the Chinese mythological phoenix while the French escargot and cavalier combine to make the name of the snail-like, armoured Escavalier. The German words for one, two and three can be seen in the names of the evolutionary line of Deino, Zweilous and Hydreigon and the same occurs in Spanish with Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.
Other names are more explicitly linked to the creature’s characteristics, with an adaptation of a descriptive word, like the Drowzee, which can put people to sleep. While some European languages reproduce the English name, the French translation of this Pokémon is Soporifik, which is an alteration of Soporifique (soporific).
Whatever your thoughts on Pokémon Go, it’s hard to deny the impressive linguistic work that has gone into naming over 700 new creatures, imaginary or not! Now, all together now GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL!!