Monday, August 04, 2008

It’s Not Just That They All Look the Same

Dear Korean,

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?

Jenny B.

Dear Jenny,

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


  1. And many Koreans, especially salarymen, seem to enjoy taking the confusion to a higher level by simplifying their name for the hapless foreigner to the initial letters of their two names. Of course the initials depend on the way that they choose to spell their name in English, which can vary. Even Korean people can have a hard time telling which initials go with which underlying name, and it doesn't take too many meetings in one day before the Westerner can feel like she is swimming in alphabet soup.

  2. Okay, I am curious about "dollimja" now.

    We have an (adopted) Korean son whose birth name - now his American middle name - is Jee Sub. When his biological brother was born to us, we wanted to do what we thought was the Korean tradition and preserve a single letter between them - we chose Jee - and ended up with Sang Jee for his brother's middle name.

    Of course, we're about as Anglo as you can get, and picked the syllables out of books from the library, so we really don't know if we muffed the name or not, but the intent was there.

    Anyway, seeing you mention 'another Korean naming tradition' made me think of this, and I was wondering if that was what you were referring to.

    I enjoyed this post, btw. I have to agree with you with regards to "telling apart" the names - just learn the two syllables. It's really not that hard ;)

  3. taemin,

    good point! The Korean missed that one.


    bless your heart for adopting a child, and going through such an effort that you described. The Korean really wishes he could tell you that you had it 100 percent correct.

    But proper dollimja requires not just the same sound, but also the same position. So if your bio child's name was "Ji Sang", to match "Ji Sub", it would have been perfect. (But both Sang Ji and Ji Sang are good Korean names.)

    But nonetheless, bless you for paying attention and giving effort! In the end, that's what counts.

    1. Ah, I have cousins(-in-law) called Hyon-Na, Hyon-Yeng, and Hyon-Ji. I mentioned them to someone back in Australia once and they made an odd comment on them like "couldn't the parents be more inventive or something?" I suppose it sounds odd to western ears (I'm about as white as you can get), but most of the girls in my biological family have either "Anne" or "Grace" as a middle name, so I was used to it!

  4. I was talking to my cousin about this and she said that there are some Koreans with two-syllable names out there! Naturally two-syllable names, I mean, not shortened ones! She even remembered someone's name that had about five syllables. Is this three-syllable naming thing a law? Or is it just extremely strong convention that only a few people break?

  5. Katie,

    the latter. The Korean has an uncle with a two-syllable name, and has a friend who has a four-syllable name. The longest Korean name the Korean has ever seen unfortunately belonged to this one little girl was kidnapped and murdered. Her name was eight syllables: Park Cho-rong-cho-rong-bit-na-ri. Apparently friends and family called her simply Park Chorong. ("Sparkle")

  6. Yes! That's it! That's the long name that my cousin told me!

    You are psychic.

  7. Dear AAK,

    This was interesting, and I look forward to your larger article on ddolimja. Would that have the same stem word as the word for a child's one-year anniversery?

  8. And one more question......

    Is AAK aware of a Korean equivalent of the Hatfields and the McCoys? Are the Gimhae Kims, for example, sworn enemies of the Suwon Shins?

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  10. That was about the best explanation of Korean names I could find that took less than two minutes to read.

    As a teaser though, I'd have to say that while a majority of Koreans no longer pick names using these methods, there is a lot of other stuff that goes into picking the characters themselves.

    The 'dollimja' (common character) for the whole generation of descendants is determined by some gathering of forefathers way before your time within the same 'bon.' This is one reason for a lot of funny sounding names apart from the fact that some parents just have an odd sense of humor: if you're the last one born in a particular generation, you're left with the scrap letters that sound like crap when put together with the 'dollimja' designated to your generation.

    Also important is something called the 'saju,' literally meaning 'four pillars.' This is composed of the year, month, day, and time of one's birth. This supposedly determines which characters are suitable for use. This is not, however, simply the same year, month, day, and time that is commonly denoted on the Gregorian calendar. Eastern civilization kept track of time using two sets of rotating characters: the 'jiji' which repeats every ten and the 'cheongan' which repeats every twelve. Sections of days were divided up using this method, as were months and years. I'm not particularly sure of the significance of the 'jiji,' but the 'cheongan' represent the twelve animals that you so fondly hear about when everyone goes crazy because its the year of the 'Golden Pig' or etc. Anyways, this is becoming way too complicated, so I guess The Korean can pick up on it on another post if he wishes.

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  12. jeff,

    email the question -- there are people waiting in line! :)


    yeah, that's pretty much what the Korean wanted to stay clear of. For once the Korean wanted to write a post that was in a manageable size.

  13. This is a great post, thanks. I have no major point, just some observations:

    I've been here (Korea) long enough to note the trend that different names (or name syllables) go through. I remember in my first couple of years here I met a lot of little kids with Su or Bin in their names (actually, Su Bin is, I think, a unisex Korean name, isn't it?) but these days a lot of small kids and new girl babies seem to be designated a name with the "어" or "애" sound in it. Similarly, I know A LOT of 20-something girls whose names include the character "Hye".
    Reminiscent of the excessive number of "Jessicas" I went to school with. :)


  14. Hey, I'm Korean and my last name is Kim, My family had generation names but my dad broke with naming me, my name should have had Soo in it but instead gave me an american name. I wanted to continue that tradtion but my dad forgets what comes after Soo, is there anywhere i can find out?

  15. Joseph,

    You have to know what "type" of Kim you are..

    In one of the korean naming related article, the Korean mentions some..kimhae Kims, if I remember correctly..

    Forgive me my grammer is terrible.

    As for me, my last name is also Kim, and the "type" (I dont know what other words to use) is Guangsan Kim. I know that im the 42nd descendent so my dollimja is Soon.

    Some familys actually make websites for these dollimjas..haha

    I hope you can find what you are looking for~~^^

  16. Hi! I like this post.. I'm learning korean and my teacher put me a Korean name its 연아 like the figure skater Kim Yu-Na.. and I wanted to know what does it means.. could you help me?

  17. so i was wondering if Jeongmin would actually be a feminine name.. because min was marked as a popular girl character...

    1. How about 전 동 민 (Jeon as a surname and Dong Min as the name)? I've read in a website that it means "east" and "intelligence" or something like that?

      This is the link of the web: Does the names sound weird?

  18. Hi, thank you for this post :D

    haha same as Etzen, I have to have a Korean name for my Korean class, I thought of Ji Mae from the kdrama Iljimae, but idk if it's legit or if its feminine. Help me out? Thanks again, Anne

  19. Thanks for this post! I have been searching everywhere online to find an explanation about Korean names and had no luck. Not sure how I stumbled upon this one, but lucky day! I was just wondering if there was a good site that lists Korean names and meanings. The best I can find are baby naming sites with only 20-40 to choose from.

  20. Thanks so much, this article explains a lot! What about parts of names such as Hye and Eun which appear to have the same meaning? What is the difference between the two? I'm looking for a way to say "God's-grace-mercy" in three syllables for a baby girl's name. :-)


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