Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 2

We finally got the Korean names subseries going, starting with an explanation of romanization of names. To give you a tentative roadmap, part 2 will cover the basic structure of Korean names, part 3 will cover family names and origins, and part 4 will be on “Sam Soon” and other names Koreans find funny. Please feel free to post any questions you may have here or under Ask B&B throughout this week, and if relevant, I will try to incorporate my answers into the planned series or add additional parts to the series.

Please note that the remainder of this subseries will be on the general practice today, and not on naming practices in Korean history during the Joseon era or during the era of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. But of course, some modern practices are influenced by, a legacy of, or identical to historical practices.

For many international fans of K-dramas, I suspect that it would take some getting used to before becoming familiar with names of Korean drama characters. And frankly, I don’t blame you. When I watch non-Western or non-Korean shows from cultures not of my own, I too find it a great challenge to remember the names of the characters. My goal is that by the end of this subseries, you’ll feel that Korean names don’t sound as foreign and intimidating to you as they did before you started the series.

In general, a typical Korean name consists of three syllables, composed of a one-syllable family name followed by a two-syllable given name. For example, Gong Hyo Jin’s character in Best Love is 구애정. Here, 구 (pronounced “Gu,” where the letter “u” is pronounced like the “u” in the word “dude”) is her family name, and her given name is 애정 (pronounced “Ae Jung,” where the second syllable of her given name rhymes with the English word “lung”). According to the Revised Romanization of Korean, her name should be romanized as “Gu Ae-jeong.” But without asking this fictional drama character herself, it would be impossible to determine the actual way she romanizes her own name. For instance, 구 can also be romanized as Goo, Koo, or Ku, depending on that individual’s personal preference. My own Korean given name has 정 in it, and I’ve always preferred it to be romanized as Jung because I’ve always seen it done that way until fairly recently (after the adoption of Revised Romanization in Korea in 2000). But I notice with increasing frequency that more and more recent immigrants or international study abroad students do adopt the spelling “Jeong”.

Similar to the different ways that names can be romanized, whether to write the two-syllable given name as one word (“Aejung”), to hyphenate it (“Ae-jung”), or separate it (“Ae Jung”) will depend on the personal preference of the name holder. The style that that individual adopts when filing official paperworks is the correct spelling of her name. In the past, it was common for the given name to be written out separately (i.e. “Ae Jung”), but in recent years, it has become increasingly common for individuals to choose to hyphenate or combine their two-syllable given name in variety of ways (i.e. Aejung, AeJung, Ae-jung, or Ae-Jung).

Koreans in Korea always follow the order of placing the family name first and the given name second. However, when Koreans immigrate or travel to foreign countries where this is not the case (for example, the U.S.), they would likely follow the custom of that culture. Thus, Gu Ae-jung would be Ae-jung Gu in the U.S.

Though not as common, some Koreans just have two syllables in their name. That’s because they have a one-syllable given name. For example, the actor pictured on the left is Jin Goo (Mother). His family name is “Jin.” His given name is “Goo.”

In a recent episode of Come to Play, Jin Goo shared that because of his unusual name, kids teased him about his name when he first started school, saying that his name was “incomplete.”

You may wonder if there is any special meaning to having a one-syllable given name, and the answer is no. Just like how an American parent may name her daughter “Apple” (the actual name of actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter), some Korean parents may just desire to give their child a more unique or unconventional name, or just think a one-syllable given name sounds “cooler.”

Note that some celebrities with a two-syllable name, like actors Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince) or Shin Goo (Family Honor), are using a stage name. Gong Yoo’s real name is a much more conventional Gong Ji-chul. Shin Goo’s real name is Shin Soon-gi. I suppose entertainers may favor adopting two-syllable stage names because they stand out amongst all the three-syllable names.


(Pictured from left to right: Hwangbo, Namgoong Min, and Sunwoo Eunsook)

Most Korean family names are just one syllable- Kim, Lee, Park, Choi, Ahn, Eun, Gu, Han, Lim, Kang, and the list goes on. However, although pretty rare, there are a handful of two-syllable family names as well. Some more “common” examples include Dokgo, Hwangbo, Namgoong, Sunwoo, Seomun, Sakong, Dongbang, and Jegal. There are a couple of others as well, but those are so rare (fewer than 100 Koreans with that family name) that your chance of meeting someone with a family name like Mangjul, Sobong, or Janggok is practically next to zero. If you do meet someone with such a name, make sure to get his autograph!

People with a two-syllable family name may have a total of three syllables in their name by “balancing” out their long family name with a one-syllable given name. Others have the conventional two-syllable given name, in addition to their two-syllable family name, for a grand total of four syllables.

The name of Cha Seung Won’s character in Best Love is 독고진 (Dokgo Jin). Here, 독고 (Dokgo) is his family name, and his given name is 진 (Jin). Besides this fictional character, some real-life Korean celebrities with a two-syllable family name include singer Hwangbo (her real name is Hwangbo Hyejung), actor Namgoong Min (Can You Hear My Heart?) and actress Sunwoo Eunsook (Please Marry Me).

Others, like actors Dokgo Youngjae (real name Jeon Youngjae), Sunwoo Yongnyeo (real name Jung Yongre) and Namgoong Won (real name Hong Kyungil) use a two-syllable family name as their stage name when their actual family name is a much more conventional, common names like Jeon, Jung, and Hong.

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9 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 2

  1. Kristal says:

    I love this language and culture series. Best Love is the first time I have ever come across the Dokgo family name (or Dokko as I have seen being used as well). Anyways, I will ready any post that begins with a picture from Best Love! 🙂

  2. Softy says:

    You deserve sime kind of award for posts like these – so informative 🙂 I don’t even want to think about how much time and research you must have put in- thanks to you I am learning so much and I’m Korean/american and had no clue about most of this. When other ppl bring this stuff up, I don’t pay attention, but when you post- i read it over and over to retain the info. You are a great teacher master blue.*bows in awe*
    i have been staring at namgoong min for 20 eps and I had no idea who that was – he didn’t even look familiar to me – dang what a difference some facial hair and a tan makes. Plus I never knew his real name or stage name until now. Your knowledge of Korean celebrity names astounds me – must be nice to have such a great memory. I can barely remember my own Korean name cuz I don’t use it much – I only hear it when my older sister gets mad at me. For some odd reason she thinks I will listen better if she uses my Korean name- no clue why. 🙂

    • Namgoong Min has lost alot of weight in his face. He almost looks skeletal now. It kind of worries me really. He would be so much hotter if he put on just a wee bit of weight.

      • Oh and look wordpress lets us log in with our facebook accounts now! Spiffy. Of course now my secret identity has been revealed and I might have to kill anyone who reads this…

  3. Christine says:

    This is really interesting! I actually do have a question: how common is it to have a three-syllable given name? I’m thinking of K-Pop idol Dara, whose real name is Park Sandara.

    • snow says:

      i was about to ask this question too. notably actress han ye seul, whose given name is “kim ye seul yi”, which i’m told is a very pretty name.

      and i agree with softy – you ladies definitely deserve an award or something for this k-language & culture series! *thumbs up*

  4. martha says:

    Thank you so much for this 🙂 It is so interesting. I was wondering if there is a clear line between male and female names in Korean. I’ve noticed that there is less of a line these days in american male and female names. My grand daughter goes to school with a girl named Michael and has a friend named Sky that is a boy. Again thank you

  5. mandelbrotr says:

    Thank you for this post.

  6. estel says:

    I read somewhere once (I know, specific, huh?) that Gong Yoo’s stage name is his father’s family name plus his mother’s; hence “Gong (father’s) Yoo (mother’s). But I don’t know how true that is.

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