In 1981, Nintendo broke into the arcade game market in North America with one of the first platform video games, Donkey Kong. Unlike Pac-Man or some early shooter games (Anyone remember Atari's River Raid?), Donkey Kong featured platforms, jumping characters, and a comic storyline. But where was the donkey? Was the name a mistake? Should we care?
For his first video game design, the creator, the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, reworked the Popeye the Sailor storyline or the plot of the movie King Kong (1933, with Fay Wray). Set in a construction site, the game pits the carpenter (first named Mr Video, Jumpman, or Mario before he teamed up with his brother Luigi and moved to plumbing) against a large ape (Donkey Kong) who has kidnapped The Lady/Pauline (Perils of).
People have offered several explanations for why the ape is named Donkey Kong: mispronounced words over the telephone, a misread fax, mistranslation from Japanese to English. One urban legend claims the ape was supposed to be named Monkey Kong.
(These and other explanations are documented at "Donkey Wrong", posted on Snopes.com, a reliable urban legend and rumour debunking site.)
However, Miyamoto insists he came up with the ape's name from word associations in Japanese popular culture and contact with the English language. Japanese speakers had borrowed in the English "King Kong" (or just "Kong") as a colloquial name for a big, threatening ape, not unlike the way "Kong" is sometimes used in English-speaking popular culture. Then, looking for a suitable English word for "stupid, foolish", Miyamoto chose donkey, the animal often associated with extreme stubbornness.
The humble stereotype associated with the word "donkey" may also have worked as a subtle pun, reversing the concept of a king. If so, Miyamoto and Nintendo were zigzagging word associations to avoid copyright infringement on the English name "King Kong".
It's interesting to uncover the "real" story of how Donkey Kong got his name, but urban legends and myths about word origins also tell us something interesting about cultural attitudes, about multilingual understanding, and about how language as we hear or read it can reflect more than we might consciously acknowledge.
Since 1909, the Christmas song Twelve Days of Christmas includes the line "Four calling birds", but the 1780 English version has "Four colly birds", birds black as coal.
If we believe Miyamoto, the name Donkey Kong arose not from creative mishearing or misreading, but because the game creators reworked English-language popular culture (cartoons, movies), romance myths, and stereotypes of animal behaviour to trigger certain word associations for an English-speaking audience (and consumers).