Batman bin Suparman Arrested on Drug Charges. Here's How He Got His Name.  

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Nov. 11 2013 4:01 PM

Batman bin Suparman Arrested on Drug Charges. Here's How He Got His Name.  

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Batman's ID card.

According to Reuters, a 23-year-old man in Singapore was sentenced to two years and nine months of prison time for a variety of charges, including stealing money from his brother and taking heroin. This rather sad story made international news for precisely one reason: the man's name is Batman bin Suparman.

Batman bin Suparman first achieved Internet fame back in 2008, when a scanned image of his identity card made the rounds on Gizmodo and elsewhere. So does this young Javanese-Singaporean really have two superheroes in one name? Well, one superhero and one Javanese name that's coincidentally similar to another superhero. Let's take a look.

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First, Suparman. This is, in fact, a very common name among the Javanese who inhabit central and eastern thirds of the Indonesian island of Java, as well as nearby ethnolinguistic groups, particularly the Sundanese in the western third of Java. The Su- prefix, derived from a Sanskritic root (सु in Devanagari) meaning "good, fortunate," shows up frequently in Javanese names, such as the first two presidents of Indonesia, Sukarno and Suharto, as well as the current president Susilo (Bambang Yudhoyono). A former Indonesian military commander named Djadja Suparman was recently convicted for embezzlement. A Sundanese traditional musician who has toured the United States is named Ade Suparman. And showing the Sundanese penchant for reduplication, the outgoing chairman of Indonesia's Judicial Commission is named Eman Suparman. His replacement (no relation) is Suparman Marzuki, who made a strong showing in the 2013 Name of the Year Tournament.

So there's no connection to Superman, though the similarity is obvious enough in Indonesia to generate occasional puns on the name. A comic book published in 2008 is entitled Suparman Pulang Kampung ("Suparman Goes Home to the Village"), a self-deprecating localization of the Superman mythos complete with the familiar "S" logo.

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Batman, on the other hand, has no false friends in local languages (as far as I'm aware). And the character of Batman is almost as well known in the region as Superman, so it's hard to imagine any source other than the DC Comics superhero. One indication of Batman's fame is yet another Indonesian fusion of the global and the local: the Bandung-based rapper Iwa K released a song in the mid-'90s called "Batman Kasarung," melding the Batman story with the Sundanese folk character Lutung Kasarung, a prince disguised as a monkey. So it appears that the Javanese parents of young Batman really were inspired by the comic book creation.

The full name, Batman bin Suparman, features an Arabic patronymic construction occasionally used by Muslims in the region. Bin means "son," so the name is literally "Batman, son of Suparman." Could Suparman and his wife have named their son Batman as a wry joke, playing on the similarity of Suparman to Superman? That's the likeliest explanation, though it would be unfortunate for the young man to be saddled for life with his parents' one-time attempt at humor.

When the image of the identity card first circulated in 2008, some wondered if it might be a fake, but there was enough evidence to confirm its veracity. First, the line of Jawi script (Arabic script used for writing Malay) is a perfect transliteration of the Romanized name. Furthermore, one Singaporean blogger recalled in 2005 that he was childhood friends with Batman bin Suparman. And a commenter on another Singapore-based blog remembered the name from working at a call center. (The commenter was responding to a post about another comical Singaporean name: Ninja Turtle. Cruel, cruel parents.)

Now we know for sure that Batman bin Suparman is a genuine name. Sadly, his latest all-too-human misadventures prove that he's no superhero.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.