He had an American name

Yesterday, on the Our Bastard Language group on Facebook, this entertaining item passed on by two members of the group from Thunder Dungeon’s page:


Despite the fact that many Americans are accustomed to confronting, almost every day, names they don’t recall ever having heard before — well, most of us have ancestries from elsewhere, a lot of different elsewheres — there are still many names we recognize as “American”, even if we have some sense of the ethnic heritage of the bearers of those names. They might be perceived as English, Scots, Dutch, Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Mexican-American, French, or whatever, but for us they count as American. And we are keenly aware of divergences from the set of typically American names, as above: Steve is an American personal name, Sleve is not; Dwight is an American personal or family name, Dwigt is not; Hudnutt is an American family name, Dugnutt is not; Gonzalez is an American family name, Bonzalez is not.

(Side note: Arnold Zwicky, as a whole name, is not an American name. So far as I can tell, only two Americans have ever had that name, and the other one was my father.)

As is common with net entertainment, nobody identifies the source of the story; it’s just “from a [Japanese] 90s video baseball game”.  The story could be entirely fabricated, as something that Japanese speakers would do if they were trying to make up names for American baseball players, using the personal and family names of actual baseball players. Or it could be genuine, in which case someone should provide a link to the game.

Whether real or fabricated, the game designers couldn’t use the actual names (for legal reasons), but they could shuffle the two names from originals and alter one or both of them, by replacing one or two letters or leaving a letter out.

The shuffling effect can be seen clearly in the name Dwigt Rortugal, preposterously altered from Dwight Portugal (Rortugal not being an American name, and Dwigt being orthographically ill-formed), probably concocted from Dwight Gooden (the most famous Dwight in baseball from the period) and Mark Portugal (the most famous Portugal in baseball from the period). (Side note: it’s astonishing that, though I know very little about baseball, I immediately recognized Dwight Gooden and Mark Portugal; you pick up little bits of stuff from popular culture, even if you don’t attend to the relevant pop-cultural area.)

The orthographic alterations typically produce names that are not American names — Sleve, Dugnutt, and Bonzalez above, and also Sernandez (for Fernandez), McDichael (for McMichael), and Bobson (for either Robson or Hobson, both family names that can be used as personal names, though I haven’t found any baseball players with these personal names) — and some that aren’t even orthographically well-formed, like Dwigt and McRlwain (for McElwain).

(Side note: the Americanness of names depends on several factors. Rarity, length, and phonological complexity all contribute to a sense of foreignness, even for names of European origin — like Zwicky (Swiss), Etchemendy (Basque), Lehiste (Estonian), and Wojohowitz (Polish), and polysyllabic surnames from rural areas of German-speaking lands, like these Pa. Dutch names familiar to me from my childhood: Dreibelbis, Finefrock, Hinnerschitz, Fenstermacher, Diefenderfer.

Jewish surnames like Cohen, Levy, and Friedman now, I think, almost all count as American. But some other ethnically identifying classes of surnames are probably generally judged to be foreign, regardless of their frequency: Wang, Zhang, and Liu as Chinese; Nakamura, Matsuda, and Suzuki as Japanese; Mohammed, Abdullah, and Ali as Arab/Muslim; and so on.)

The title of this posting is a play on the song line “She was an American Girl” —


So this posting is also a tribute to the rock musician Tom Petty, who died on the 2nd. From Wikipedia:


“American Girl” is the second single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut album.

… In [an] interview, Petty says that he wrote the song while living in California [and that it has nothing to do with a college girl committing suicide]:

“I don’t remember exactly. I was living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. In Encino, near Leon Russell’s house. And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric.

You can listen to a performance here (with photos of American actresses).

2 Responses to “He had an American name”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    A number of articles identify the game as “Fighting Baseball” for Super Famicom, and give some more screenshots.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: