Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Still More about Korean Names!

[Series Index]

Dear Korean,

I noticed in quite a few cases (at least on TV) that siblings share one syllable of their name. How common is this, and what is its origin? I get the sense that it is not considered as eccentric as giving all your children names which begin with the same letter. I also noticed that close friends and family sometimes will call a person by the syllable which is not shared with the sibling. What could you tell me about that?

Andrew T.

Dear Andrew,

You, sir, know how to jump the line in AAK! -- by asking questions about one of the Korean's favorite topics, Korean names. Korea's naming conventions are elaborate and unique, and the Korean never gets tired of talking about them.

What you identified is a custom called dollimja (돌림자, "circulating letters"). To understand this custom, you have to first understand the clan names of Koreans, which is explained in this post. To summarize quickly:  Koreans can generally trace their last name all the way back to the very first person who held their last name. For example, the "Kim" clan can be traced to a single, actual person who lived around the first century. Every reputable lineage society (종친회), at least one for each last name and several for large last names like "Kim", maintains the record of the lineage and the children born into the clan. Based on that record, each Korean can precisely identify, by number, how many generation s/he is from the very first ancestor of her/his last name.

In this context, the function of dollimja is to show another person what generation level you are in. The shared letter is not just shared among siblings -- it is shared among everyone who is at the same generational level. This includes your siblings, your first cousins (because their parents belong to the same generational level as your parents,) your second cousins, etc. By the same token, your father, uncles and the parents of your second cousin would all share a syllable in their names. Also, your children and nephews would all share a syllable in their names.

This tradition has weakened somewhat in modern times, but it is still fairly strong. Formerly dollimja would only cover male heirs  -- don't forget the fact that traditional Korea was very sexist -- but now it is fairly commonplace for daughters to take the dollimja as well, when the dollimja is conducive to making girls' names as well. For example, the most famous brother-sister actor-actress pair in Korean history, Choi Jin-Sil and Choi Jin-Yeong, shared the dollimja "Jin" ("truth"). In the Korean's family, all the girls took the dollimja as well.

Dollimja is unique by clan; each clan has a line of dollimja to be used for all of its children. This necessarily means that you share the dollimja with the children of your father's brother, but not with the children of your father's sister (because those children would take the last name of your father's sister's husband.)

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Who are the people who choose the particular letter? Usually it is the lineage society that decides, then communicates the letters to the heads of each extended family along with the lineage book (족보).

How is a particular letter chosen? The most dominant methodology is the "five elements" (오행) method. To understand this, you need a crash course on Chinese characters, because Korean names are still mostly (around 90 percent) based on Chinese characters. Chinese characters are logograms -- i.e. they are letters representing meanings, not sound. Each character holds a meaning, and new characters are formed by combining existing characters. So for example, 木 is a tree. 林 -- two trees -- is a forest.

Now, back to the five elements theory. In traditional Chinese philosophy, the world was consisted of five elements -- wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), water (水). Each element not only represents the materials of the world, but also the essential spirit  within each element. So for example, wood is not simply timber, but the vivacity and strength within trees. And each element either nourishes or saps away from another element. Wood helps fire, but saps from earth. Metal helps water, but cuts down wood.

This is the order of helpfulness -- wood helps fire, which helps earth, which helps metal, which helps water, which helps wood, again. So the dollimja is chosen by picking a character with good meaning that contains a particular element within it. By going through this sequence, the name of the father will augment the name of the children, since the elemental character of the father's name is supposed to help the elemental character of the children's name.

For example, this is the dollimja sequence of Gwangsan Kim clan, Moonjeong-gong subclan, 46th through 50th generation:

X鏞 (yong, "bell"), 淵X (yeon, "lake"), X植 (shik, "to plant"), 炯X (hyeong, "bright"), X坤 (gon, "earth")

This sequence starts from "metal", and finishes with "earth". There are other methods of setting the dollimja, but it appears that the "five elements" method is the runaway favorite choice.

One last note about how to name a child with a dollimja:  most Korean names are three syllables. One of the syllables is the last (family) name. Then which one of the remaining syllable is the dollimja? Answer -- the placement alternates by generation. In the example above, "X" marks the place where a child's "true" name would go. So for example, every boy who is the 46th generation of Gwangsan Kim clan, Moonjeong-gong subclan would be named like this:  Ji-Yong, Jae-Yong, Su-Yong, Cheol-Yong, etc. Every boy at the 47th generation would be named like this:  Yeon-Su, Yeon-Hwan, Yeon-Jeong, Yeon-Kyu, etc.

Applied fully, the effect of having this unified naming system is quite amazing. Originally, the purpose of the dollimja is to precisely identify one's clan/subclan and one's generational level simply by giving one's name. This was particularly useful because in ancient Korea, people generally lived with their extended families sharing the same last name. Even in modern Korea, this is marginally useful. For example, the Korean realized that his high school teacher had the same last name as his but had a dollimja that belonged to one generation after the Korean -- and snickered at the thought that the Korean's strict, scary teacher was actually his distant nephew.

Once dollimja is explained, the custom of calling a child by just a single syllable not shared with your siblings makes perfect sense. Out of the three syllables that is a Korean name, one of them marks your last name; another marks your generational level; and the last one, finally, is your "true" name. Although some parents do call their children by that single syllable representing the "true" name, this custom is not truly widespread -- based on the Korean's anecdotal experience, it seemed that only about 1 in 10 parents call their children this way.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Some Chinese families also use a "generation" word in this way too, although the practice is not as widespread.

    It is also interesting that Koreans use the elements in this way for their name. In Taiwan, at least, to name your kid, you often take your kid to the astrologer, who uses the birth date and hour to figure out what element that date is "deficient" in. You are supposed to make up for this deficiency in your name. For example, my date was supposedly deficient in earth. My mom liked the sound of the name "ying," but she choose the homophone with the "jade" radical (because you get jade out of the ground) to balance out my birth date.

  2. This is an incredibly interesting post. How would someone who is not a native Korean speaker find and contact the lineage society for their clan? Would someone such as myself (mom is Korean, dad is not, and I grew up in the US) be allowed a lineage book?

  3. @Wanda I think many Koreans do this as well, and I was also named the same way. for my personal character I was given the character 敏(민첩할 민/agile) to counteract the potential laziness that I embodied based on my birth date. My grandfather was wise to do this because I truly am...lazy.

  4. This was seriously fascinating. Thanks.

  5. I sent you a message a million years ago asking about names too.... particularly why they're nearly always two syllables and one family name. I guess maybe the answer is "just because". I just remember when I was shocked when I got a student with a four syllable name (family name plus 3 syllables) I thought my attendance list had a typo.

  6. My father and most of his brothers broke with the dollimja tradition, so only one of my cousins actually got the requisite name (Joon in the second spot). My mother's brothers have followed the dollimja for the boys, but there aren't many boys for the names to go around to.

    Since my father broke with tradition and I'm much less traditional than he is, I think that's a name feature any potential future children of mine will lack. Still, I should probably learn a little more about my ancestry before it's lost to the winds of time, huh?

  7. PMG, per the questions policy, please don't ask questions on the board. This will ensure that questions are answered in order.

    Jo-Anna, sorry, Andrew's question was just too right on the money for something the Korean always wanted to discuss.

  8. Some families continue this tradition by using alliterative names for their kids, also popular among the old Anglo-Saxons.

  9. I noticed that you used the word "sexist" to describe the way Korean society puts men at the top. It seems too bad to me that the word has so many negative connotations, especially since the sexism that exists and existed in Korea is quite different in type from that of the West. In the West, women were considered nothing more than the property of men for a very long time, on a par with their cattle (origin of the word "chattels"). To be a woman was to be inferior, protected by men or abused by them, and anything feminine was considered base, impure, and of no value except for bearing children.

    On the other hand, women in Korean (and Confucian) thought were subservient to men but for the reason that it was a method of producing an orderly society. Women were not inferior in essence or the tasks that they performed. They were, in fact, held on a pedestal and respected as pivotal to society and life. Even today, men do not feel insulted in Korea if the other men in their group refer to them as "the mother" because they are caring, cook for them, or otherwise take on the roles traditionally female. They consider it praise because to react otherwise would be to show disrespect for all the hard work their own mothers did in raising them. Boys in K-Pop bands readily admit without the least shame that they are the daughters of their families that have no female children. They do not consider being called a woman an insult because they have a fundamental respect for women. It is a far different and far less corrosive type of "sexism".

  10. it is really a nice blog. sometimes after reading any blog , i always wonder how can one thread or article provide so much correct information. i really appreciate your work . when my wife was pregnant , she always told me to found some cute korean baby names either for boy or girl, but due to my work pressure , i didn't get any time for that, so one day she told me about various names and said choose from one of them and that names were collect from babynology website and i was really wonder and confused at that time because all the korean baby names were really sounds good and having perfect meaning. http://www.babynology.com/korean_babynames.html and today, same thing again happen to me after reading your blog. Thank you very much.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...