Apple Piety

But my favourite example is a story told by the American linguist Charles Hockett, who reports that at least one Filipino father, during the American occupation of the Philippines, named his son Ababís — after the patron saint of the United States. But no such saint exists. So what happened?

Well, before the Americans arrived, the Philippines were a Spanish colony, and Spanish was widely spoken. In Spanish, the word for ‘saint’, when it occurs in a male saint’s name, is San — hence all those California place names like San Francisco, San José and San Diego. The Filipino father had noticed that American soldiers, in moments of stress, tended to call upon their saint by exclaiming San Ababís! — or something like that.

— Robert Lawrence Trask, Language: The Basics, 1999

“I once had a student named Usmail, which I at first thought was some Hispanic version of Ishmael,” writes CUNY linguist Leonard R.N. Ashley. “It transpired that he had been named for the only contact his family in a remote Puerto Rican village enjoyed with the outside world, the red-white-and-blue truck that came frequently and had painted on its side US Mail.”

“In Nyasaland, Africa, a native tribe got into the custom of taking names from a publisher’s catalogue which had fallen into their hands. Their Chieftain took for himself the name of Oxford University Press.” — Mario Pei, The Story of Language, 1966