Friday, October 18, 2013

Name Change in Korea

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Dear Korean,

Here's yet another question for you about Korean names. At the end of last semester I was giving speaking tests to our middle school students, and was taking roll based on the name list given at the beginning of the year. However, several of my students had changed their names in those few months. Not changed their English names, I mean their parents changed their Korean names. Why do they do this? Why at such a late age? How common is it?


Name change in Korea is not particularly common, but it is hardly unheard of either. The number of name changes greatly increased after 2005, after the Supreme Court significantly relaxed the "good cause" required for a name change. As a result, until 2005, the court granted name change in around 80 percent of the cases. After 2005, the court granted name change in around 90 percent of the cases or higher. This leniency led to a greater number of Koreans wanting to change their names. In 2009, there were approximately 170,000 petitions for name change filed with the Supreme Court. (To contextualize the number, consider that Korea's population is approximately 50 million.) In contrast, there were only 46,000 petitions for name change in 2002.

Koreans legally change their names for all kinds of reasons, although most of the reasons are some variations of "I don't like the name." There are those who did not appreciate their parents' sense of humor and desired to change their name to avoid ridicule. Many simply thought their name was too old-fashioned or corny. Some wanted to change their names after a serial killer was revealed to have the same name as they.

There are also reasons that are somewhat specific to Korea. Many petitioners filed the paperwork as a matter of technicality: they did not want to change the names that they use every day, but add or change the Chinese characters in their Sino-Korean name. (To understand the Chinese characters involved in creating a Korean name, please refer to this post.) This is usually tied to seongmyeonghak [성명학], a traditional study of the relation between one's name and one's fortune. Like getting advice from a palm reader, Koreans would sometimes visit a place called jakmyeongso [작명소, "name-maker"], receive an assessment of their names, and change their names if they deem necessary.

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  1. On a tangentially related note . . . I recently noticed in Korean newspapers in the US that some Korean-Americans are now changing the order of their names from the traditional family name/given name order, to given name/family name order - even though the name is written in hangul. Typically I see this in business ads that show several workers with their names written below their images. Within the same ad, some of them use the traditional name order - and some have switched it as I described above. And it's not just Korean-Americans with Western given names - even those with traditional Korean names are doing it.

  2. Oh, cool. I've always wanted to know, do emigrants use their real names:]

    1. There is the name that one uses for him or herself - and then there's the name that others use. In the case of Korean-Americans, the Korean media will sometimes address them using their American name, and sometimes they will address them by their Korean name. For example, the Korean press might refer to female golfer Michelle Wie by her American name, or it might refer to her as 위성미.

  3. Yes, we know two women who changed their names because a fortune teller told them they should. Quite interesting.

  4. I remember I've heard at school, during attendance check at one of the classes I'm taking, someone's name was 김종은 (Kim Jong-eun). Wonder if that person kept the name or not.

  5. Wow, I submitted this nearly four-and-a-half years ago. Neat to come across it again.


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