Monday, August 04, 2008
It’s Not Just That They All Look the Same
What is up with Korean names? My brother works front desk at a hotel in Canada which is owned by a Korean conglomerate, which leads to many Korean people staying there on business. As guests, he generally finds Koreans to be polite and trouble free, except when he must direct calls to their rooms-he says that for any given Korean name, he may have three people by that name staying in the hotel, and he has no idea which room to direct the call to. Are there just not enough suitable Korean names? Is there anything else my brother could use to direct calls properly?
The Korean appreciates your providing yet another excuse to dig into the Korean’s favorite topic – Korean names. Despite numerous posts about Korean names (try… here here and here), the Korean still has a thing or two to say about Korean names.
So why all the same names? Is this a part of Koreans’ diabolical plan to confuse the whitey? We already all look alike, so we will all give ourselves the same name to torture those hapless hotel clerks! Those silly Canadians will never know what hit them.
Just kidding. Let’s break it down a little bit, shall we? First, we all know that many Koreans have the same surname. (The Korean already covered this topic here.) Roughly 1 in 5 Koreans are Kims, 1 in 7 are Lees, and 1 in 10 are Parks. Kim, Lee, and Park put together comprise 45 percent of all Koreans. So that is one source of confusion.
(Aside: Koreans are not even close to being the worst offender in this area – approximately 40 percent of Vietnamese have the last name Nguyen.)
Korean first names could also be confusing. First, you have to understand the structure of a Korean first name. Korean first name is almost always two syllables. Those two syllables are almost always made up of two Chinese characters with distinct meanings.
(Although they are Chinese characters, Koreans pronounce them differently from the way Chinese people do. It’s akin to the way same alphabets are pronounced different across English, French, and German.)
So generally, the way Koreans name their children is to select two Chinese characters with good meanings and cool sounds, and put them together in some order. Some characters are associated with boys, some with girls, and some characters are unisex. The Korean’s own name is also unisex. (What is it, you ask? Wouldn’t you like to know.)
Just to show the Korean naming process, here are some examples:
Popular boys’ characters and meanings – Jun (excellence, hero), Seung (rise, victory), Jae (talent), Cheol (philosophical), Jin (advance), Tae (big), Seok (excellence), Hwan (brightness) etc.
Popular girls’ characters and meanings – Mi (beauty), Min (clever, smart), Ah (grace), So (serene), Suk (demure), Hee (joy), Eun (silver, grace), Bin (brilliance), Hye (grace) etc.
Popular unisex characters and meanings – Jeong (pure, correct), Hyeon (wisdom), Su (excellence), Sang (high official), Yun (brilliance), Hyo (filial), Yeong (glory), Seong (success), Ji (wisdom), Kyeong (capital, top) etc.
So let’s name some Korean children! For a boy, pick two “boy” characters or one “boy” and one unisex character, and mix and match. Something like Seung-Jun? (Victorious hero, also one of the Korean’s nephews’ name.) Jun-Seung is equally acceptable. Or how about Su-Cheol, an excellent philosopher? (Not a bad name for one of the most distinguished guitarists in Korea in the 1980s, Kim Su-Cheol.) Or try a girl’s name. Currently, Jeong-Ah (pure grace) is a very popular girl’s name in Korea. Or how about Su-mi, an excellent beauty who is also a world-renowned soprano (Cho Sumi)?
Please, before you write a snide comment or email, note that the Korean simplified the process by a ton. Some letters work in one position and some do not. (e.g. “Hwan” is almost always the second letter, not the first.) Some letters change sex in different positions. (Sounds dirty written that way – but e.g., Kyeong would be unisex as the first letter, but would sound feminine as the second letter.) Also, this process does not account for purely Korean names without involving any Chinese character, which are increasing in number. The Korean also skipped over Korean naming convention (dollimja), because that deserves another post.
But this process would cover most Korean names, and you can see the source of confusion. Strictly speaking, it is not very common that two Koreans have the exact same first name. (In other words, there is no exact equivalence to “John” in Korea, technically speaking.) But it is more or less the same letters floating around in different orders. Unless you are very familiar with all different renditions of them, it could get confusing.
Making this even worse for English-speakers is: because so many of your fellow English speakers cannot remember two unfamiliar sounds, a lot of Koreans drop one syllable of their first name just to make it easy for the whitey! Usually the dropped syllable is something that is hard to pronounce in English, like Seung or Hyeon. So you end up having a ton of Joon Kim or Young Park, a completely mangled Korean name that could have been Joon-Ho Kim or Joon-Seung Kim, or Young-Suk Park or Young-Hyeon Park.
So what advice could the Korean give for Jenny’s brother? The best advice is to learn the whole name of a Korean person. Just the last name or last name and the first name initial would be very unhelpful. And pay attention such that you wouldn’t mix up Min-Jeong Kim and Jeong-Min Kim. Unfamiliarity is often confusing and irritating, but hey, all immigrants do it, and they do it with a smile and minimum wage.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.