Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, the Loch Ness monster, yeti, and unicorns. Some are cryptids and others are kaiju.
In April, Merriam-Webster added the word “cryptid” to its dictionary. And in May, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” hits theaters. With those two events happening back-to-back, it seemed like a good time to talk about a few monster words and to answer an important question: Is Godzilla a cryptid?
Godzilla vs. Gojira
Let’s start with Godzilla. I’m sure you know who he is: that fictional, dinosaur-like monster who walks on two legs, destroys cities, and breathes not fire—but atomic radiation. He first appeared in the 1954 Japanese movie “Gojira.” In the movie, he’s awakened from a peaceful life beneath the sea when he’s dosed with the radiation from an atomic bomb. He destroys the city of Shinagawa and irradiates many of its citizens before finally being destroyed.
Just nine years before this movie was made, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed, closing the final chapter of World War II. Godzilla thus serves as both a symbol of nuclear holocaust and a metaphor for the devastation these bombings caused.
By the way, you might have noticed I pronounced the name of the 1954 movie as “go-JHI-ra,” not “god-ZILL-uh.” That’s because “Godzilla” is an anglicized version of the Japanese word “Gojira.” And “Gojira,” in turn, is a combination of two other words: “gorira,” meaning “gorilla,” and “kujira,” meaning “whale.” Regular Grammar Girl listeners might recognize this as a portmanteau—words like “spork” and “smog” that combine two parts of others words to make something new.
Now, when I picture Godzilla, I don’t necessarily think, “Wow, he kind of looks like a gorilla and kind of like a whale!” But I can see where the filmmakers were coming from.
‘Kaiju’ Means ‘Strange Beast’
“Gojira” was one of the first examples of what’s called a tokusatsu kaiju movie. Let me break that down.
“Tokusatsu” is a Japanese word meaning “special effects.” It tends to refer to live-action movies that were made in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. CGI hadn’t yet been invented back then, and special effects were pretty remedial. Think of men wearing monster suits, flying saucers being dangled on a string, and stop-motion monsters made of clay.
“Kaiju” is a Japanese word meaning “strange beast”; in other words, what English speakers would call a monster. Super-powerful kaiju are sometimes called “daikaiju.” The “dai-“ prefix refers to their great power or stature.
Godzilla would be considered a daikaiju. His colleagues Rodan and Mothra would be too. (And by the way, if you’ve never seen these monsters, Rodan looks like a giant pterodactyl. Mothra looks like … I am not making this up … a pretty cute giant moth.)
Some of the very first depictions of kaiju can be traced all the way back to the third century BC. They come from a book of Chinese mythology called “The Classic of Mountains and Seas,” also translated as the “Guideways through Mountains and Seas.” The kaiju in that book include a turtle with a bird’s head and viper’s tail, and a goat with nine tails, four ears, and eyes on its back.
Is Godzilla a Cryptid?
Let’s finish up with the question of whether Godzilla is a cryptid. Cryptids are strange beasts: yeti, chupacabra, and the Loch Ness monster would all fall in that category.
But cryptids are creatures that some people actually believe to exist — even though their existence has never been proven.
The word “cryptid” has the root “crypto-,” which comes from an ancient Greek work meaning “hidden, concealed, or secret.” We can see that root in words like “cryptic,” meaning mysterious; “cryptogram,” a message written in code; and “cryptarch,” a secret ruler.
In short, as much as we enjoy seeing Godzilla on the big screen, I don’t think any of us believe he actually exists. That means that although he’s a kaiju, he’s not a cryptid.
Abad-Santos, Alex. The amateur's guide to Godzilla. Vox, Sept. 16, 2014.
Gojipedia: King of the Wikis. Fandom.
Hanks, Micah. “Crypto Language: Merriam-Webster Adds “Cryptid” To Its Online Dictionary.” Mysterious Universe, April 26, 2019.
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Crypto, cryptic, cryptid, cryptogram, crpytarch (subscription required, accessed May 17, 2019).
Stevens, Shannon Victoria. The Rhetorical Significance of Gojira. UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 371.
Strassberg, Richard E. (Editor and translator). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press, 2018.
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