Monday, January 14, 2008

There are MORE Questions about Korean Names???

Dear Korean,

This might be a silly question to ask, but why do Korean Americans have both a Korean and English name? Is it to remind them they are still Korean in a dominantly English speaking country? Are Korean names their given middle name for use in the Korean home while their English name is used for outside?


Dear C,

It is not a silly question to ask. This is a silly question to ask.

It is true that many Korean Americans, and even Koreans in Korea nowadays, have English names. The reason is different for each Korean, but it is mostly because Americans just can’t pronounce some Korean names.

There are some tricky sounds in Korean that English speakers just can’t emulate - the verb sound eu, for example. (See this post for the way to pronounce it.) This is a problem because a syllable like seung, meaning “victory” or “rising”, is very popular in Korean names. (The Korean has total 10 nephews and nieces, and 5 of them have that syllable in their names.)

Similarly, some Korean names appear deceptively simple to pronounce, but English way of pronouncing it would make the name sound completely incorrect. This happens mostly because English is a screwed up language. An easy example is Kim Young-Sam, the name of a former Korean president. The last syllable sam is supposed to be pronounced like “psalm”, because a in Romanized Korean should sound like a in “avocado”. But of course, Americans don’t pronounce it correctly, and it sounds ridiculous. (This was the Korean’s reason why he picked up an English name.)

From a Korean’s perspective, after you told her your name, it’s really painful to see an American person struggle, or to correct her a million times to say your name right. If an American person can’t pronounce the name, she won’t remember your name either. And socially, that has a negative consequence.

In fact, because of this, we are now seeing an increasing number of Asians who simply have an English name to go by when they talk to Americans, even if those Asians speak very little English! The Korean swears that he knows a Chinese person whose English capacity is limited to saying, “Hi, my name is Jerry” in heavy accent.

One interesting variation from this reason is instead of acquiring an English name, Koreans would just drop one of the syllables in their first name, which is usually two syllables, leaving only the more pronounceable one. So for example, there are many Koreans who go by Joon, Jin, Young, Yoon, Min, etc., except no one in Korea would call them by that name.

Your other guesses are also correct. Korean American parents recognize that in order for their children to be treated like an American, they have to have an English name, if only to save their children from the hassle of idiots complimenting their English. But they give a Korean middle name in order to remind the children of their heritage. In many cases, the parents will use the Korean name at home, and let the children use the English names outside.

So what kind of American names do Korean people tend to use? There are two biggest factors driving the name selection for Korean Americans: first, Koreans Americans tend to be Christians; second, Korean American parents need to be able to pronounce their children’s names.

Therefore, a Korean American name tends to be a biblical one without such difficult sounds for Koreans as th – so you will be hard pressed to find a Jonathan Kim. For boys, names like John, James, Paul, Daniel are very popular. For girls, the popular names are Jennifer (Jenny), Julie, Christine, Grace, etc.

The real jackpot is those Korean names that coincide with English names, most notably Hannah and Eugene. The Korean knows 5 separate Hannahs and 4 separate Eugenes, all of them Korean.

Alternatively, Korean American parents would name their children with Korean names with easier syllable for Americans to read, like Nari, Minji, etc. (These apply more toward girls’ names, because boys’ names tend to follow a more rigid rule. That will be a post for another day – how many posts can the Korean possibly do on Korean names??)

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. It's also interesting to note that Koreans were not the only ones that picked two names, one for the home or immediate community and one for business or larger use. The Jews in the New Testament world did this also.

    For example, the apostle Peter's name is derived from the Greek Petros, but he was born with the Jewish name Simon.

  2. I've lived in China for over twenty years and I have a Chinese name because those obviously "idiotic" Chinese can only pronounce the universal English name Michael as "My-Ko." Of course, "idiotic" Americans can't correctly pronounce Korean names because they are ...duh...foreign and there are people in the states (last I heard anyway) from...duh...hundreds of countries all with..drum roll..different languages! I'm astounded that you have mastered them all and offer my heartfelt worship at your obvious superiority.

    Koreans are the number one group of students studying Mandarin in China at the moment, god bless them. Next time you have lunch with one of your beloved Chinese friends ask him or her about what Chinese think about Korean pronunciation of Mandarin. Enjoy the awkward silence and the suppressed snickers...

  3. If I were going to live in Korea I would seriously consider picking a Korean name to go by. My English name doesn't fit into Korean grammar too well.

    Interestingly, I know of a Jonathan Kim. :)

  4. Econdoc,

    "I'm astounded that you have mastered them all and offer my heartfelt worship at your obvious superiority."

    The Korean is glad you see the light.

  5. I'm a 1.5-er like you are (though I was brought to the U.S. when I was almost 2 years of age - I'm 25, grew up in America, was educated in the U.S., and speak fluent Gyeongsang sah-tu-ri; sorry, can't use Korean typeface on this computer), and it would seem that I'm an exception to your naming rule.

    My first name is Charles (I've gotten conflicting reasons why my mother decided on that name for me - my family's Catholic, so I would have assumed that a Christian name would have been standard, but then again, neither of my parents is anything near to "standard"), and while I have noticed a few other Koreans named "Charles," none of them are my age (they are all older, which implies to me that they chose that name on their own).

    However, you will probably recognize that there are exceptions to most rules, and I just wanted to mention it. Also, your blog is awesome, your answers hilarious. The sarcasm and slightly abrasive tone you use at times are, well, refreshing and very funny. Keep it up man, and make us proud (not like you haven't done so already).

  6. Sorry to pollute this particular topic, but I felt that I had to make another note. Yes, my English name is Charles but I also have a Korean name assigned to me by my paternal grandfather when I was born (my brother was born in the U.S. but he also retains a Korean name according to our jokbo rules - we are Gyeongju Lees - and we both intend to give our children, when we have them, English names and Korean names according to our jokbo rules). Perhaps you should explain the jokbo, which seems to be something quite unique to east Asia (if not specifically to Korea), at least in that the institution of the books themselves still retains great cultural and traditional authority, if you haven't done so already.

  7. Charles,

    That would have been the next post about Korean names, if anyone asks the right question. The 돌림자 phenomenon is very unique in Korean culture, and it's not very well known.

  8. What does korean name Nari mean except it is Lily the flower?

  9. I had a question on this topic. So even if you're not a half Korean, yet you go to live in Korea, is it acceptable to adopt a Korean style name if your name isn't easily comprehended in Korean?


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