Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 4

And so here we are with the fourth and the final installment of the Korean names subseries. The original title for Part 4 was “Sam Soon and other names Koreans find funny.” However, I decided to broaden the scope of the topic to include a discussion on any quirky, tacky, old-fashioned, or unconventional Korean names found in real and reel life.

As a reminder, here is the index to the series on Korean names.

Part 1: Romanization of names
Part 2: Understanding the basic structure of Korean names
Part 3: Family names and origins
Part 4: Quirky, tacky, old-fashioned, unconventional names

(Please note that I’m going to approach Part 4 with the assumption that you’ve read and understood everything that was discussed in Parts 1-3.)

Before we begin, I’d like to highly recommend that you first read the post on loanwords, as many similar concepts apply. Also, I can’t emphasize it highly enough that this post is on Korean names of today (within the last 100 years), and not on what may have been the conventional Korean naming practice in the past. Although some of the current practices were in existence during the Joseon period, this is not necessarily true once you go even further back into history. For example, many names appearing in sageuk dramas taking place during Korea’s Three Kingdoms period do not sound “normal” to people today. So with that in mind, let’s begin!

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In order to understand what makes a name “quirky, tacky, old-fashioned, or unconventional,” we need to first know the exact opposite. What is the conventional naming method in Korea?

From our earlier discussion and perhaps from your own observation, you may be well aware that a typical Korean name consists of a two-syllable given name. These two-syllable given names are almost always made up of two Chinese characters (hanja) with distinct meanings. Typically, Koreans select two Chinese characters with good meanings and cool sounds, and put them together in some order to form a name.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

You may recognize the man on the left as actor Lee Min Ho (City Hunter, Personal Taste). Ignoring his family name, his given name is composed of two syllables – Min and Ho. His parents combined the Chinese characters “敏” (pronounced as “Min” and meaning “clever” or “nimble”) and “鎬” (pronounced as “Ho” and meaning “shine brightly”) to come up with a name that means “using your smarts to shine brightly.”

On the right is Lee Min Woo, the member of the popular boyband Shinhwa. His given name is composed of two syllables – Min and Woo. His parents combined the Chinese characters “珉” (pronounced as “Min” and meaning “jade”) and “雨” (pronounced as “Woo” and meaning “rain”) to come up with a name that means a “rainfall of jade.”

Notice that the two stars both have “Min” in their names, but they use two different Chinese characters to represent “Min.” Written in Korean, there is no difference (it is “민” in both instances) and you would not be able to know which Chinese characters they are using in their names until they write out their own names using hanja. In fact, I used these two stars as examples here because their official sites included the information on the Chinese characters used in their names.

Some characters are used in boy’s names (e.g., Chul), some in girl’s names (e.g., Hee), and some characters are unisex (e.g., Hyun). Some characters are one gender in one position (as the first or the second syllable of the name), but take on another gender in another position. For example, Jung is unisex as the first letter (e.g. Jung Tae is a boy’s name, whereas Jung Ah is a girl’s name), but feminine when used as the second letter (e.g., Min Jung, Soo Jung, Hyun Jung are all girl’s names). But notice that Min Jung is a “girl’s name,” whereas Jung Min is unisex and can be found in both girls and boys.

A boy’s name is made by combining two masculine characters together, a masculine character with a unisex character, or two unisex characters. In some instances, the masculine character is so masculine (e.g., Chul) that it can be combined with a feminine character (e.g., Hee) and still be a boy’s name, as in the case of Kim Hee Chul of Super Junior.

Likewise, a girl’s name is made by combining two feminine characters together, a feminine character with a unisex character, or two unisex characters. Interestingly, actor Park Hee Soon (Bloody Fight) uses two feminine characters – Hee and Soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was teased as a child for having a “girl’s name.”

Okay, then besides having a name belonging to the opposite gender, what are some other ways that a person’s name can go wrong?

Typically, when two Chinese characters combine to form a Korean name, it doesn’t make up an actual word. Names like “Min Ho,” “Min Woo,” “Soo Jung,” “Hee Chul” and “Hee Soon” are not words in the Korean language. When people talk about their name having a certain meaning, they are referring to the meanings held by the Chinese characters used in the names.

But in some cases, the two characters can combine to form an actual word in the Korean language. It wouldn’t be such a big problem if the name created has a good meaning. But what if there are negative connotations associated with that word created. Using an English example, imagine that a couple had a son and decided to name him “Stu.” A short, no-nonsense name Stu. There wouldn’t be a problem with it, right? Well, as long as their surname was not “Pid,” that is.

Fans of Hyun Bin (Secret Garden) are probably aware that his real name is not Hyun Bin, but Kim Tae Pyung. His given name, Tae Pyung, is made up of two Chinese characters, Tae (泰 meaning “big”) and Pyung (平 meaning “peaceful”).

But “taepyung” is an actual word existing in the Korean language that means “peaceful” or “laidback.” The word is also used to describe having no care in the world. A mom may lament as she scolds her child, “How can you be so ‘taepyung’ when you’ve failed the college entrance exam three times already? Do you have any plans for your future?!”

When Mama Blue first heard that Hyun Bin’s real name was Kim Tae Pyung, she chuckled hysterically as she proclaimed, “Who names their child ‘Tae Pyung’?” Well, umm, Hyun Bin’s parents did. Needless to say, he started using a stage name after he became an actor.

Other such strange examples include Song Seung Hun (My Princess), whose real name is Song Seung Bok (“seungbok” can either mean a “monk’s clothing” or “to accept defeat”), and Ahn Nae Sang (Royal Family), whose name is the same as the word “naesang” for “wife” or “internal injury.” Ahn Nae Sang shared in an interview that he had it better than his older brother, Ahn Weh Sang. “Wehsang” can either mean “credit” (as in buying things on credit) or “external injury.”

So why would parents name their children with such strange names? I’m sure there are a number of different reasons. Perhaps ignorance. Or perhaps the parents really liked the meaning behind the Chinese characters, and were too short-sighted to see how those two Chinese characters may sound once combined. Perhaps the parents had a really wicked sense of humor… at their children’s expense. Another possibility is that the parents named the child after someone they respected, loved, or admired. Being the brat that I am, I used to always say, “Ehh, maybe the parents didn’t love their own child.” Although I was joking, sadly, in a small number of cases, that might not be such a far-fetched explanation either.

Some dramas purposefully use such names for humor. In the drama City Hall, the drama characters had names that spelled out words in the Korean language. Jo Gook (CHA SEUNG WON) means “my country.” Shin Mi-rae (KIM SUN AH) means “new future.” Min Joo-hwa (CHU SANG MI) means “democratization.” Lee Jung-do (LEE HYUNG CHUL) means “this right path.” Go Go-hae (YOON SE AH) means “aloof.” Mi-rae’s mother (played by PARK JOO AH) was named Yoo Kwon Ja, the word for “eligible voter.” In fact, besides these six characters I listed, every single one of them had a name that spelled out a word that described the said character’s role or attribute in the drama.

Geum Jan-di’s family in Boys Over Flowers all had such names as well. Geum Jan-di (GU HYE SUN) means “golden grass.” Her dad’s name, Geum Il-bong (AHN SUK HWAN), means “bonus money.” Her mom’s name, Na Gong-ju (IM YEH JIN), means “I’m a princess.” Her brother’s name, Geum Kang-san (PARK JI BIN), refers to Mt. Kumkang in North Korea. (“San” means mountain in Korean.)

Screenwriter Im Sung Han (New Gisaeng StoryAssorted Gems) is particularly known to do this in her dramas.

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JAPANESE NAMES (colonial period)

Among older Korean women, you may notice that many have names ending with “Ja.” Examples include actresses Kim Hye Ja (born in 1941), Kang Bu Ja (born in 1941), and Sa Mi Ja (born in 1940). In fact, both my maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother have names ending with “Ja” as well. But these names became practically extinct among younger Korean women. Why were these names so common in the past, but became practically extinct today?

Female Korean names ending with “Ja” originate from the period of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were strongly encouraged to assimilate to the Japanese culture. Thus, it became a common practice for parents to give their daughters a name that can work doubly as a Japanese name as well as a Korean name.

There are many female Japanese names ending with “ko” (e.g., Noriko, Aiko, Ryoko, Haruko, etc). When these names get written in kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese language), the “ko” is expressed as 子. Koreans read this same Chinese character as “ja.” For example, whereas the Japanese name, Haruko, is written as 春子 in kanji, Koreans pronounce the two Chinese characters as “Choon Ja.” Yup, the same name as Go Doo Shim’s character in the 2008 MBC drama, Choon Ja’s Happy Events. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a Korean girl may have used the Japanese equivalent name (Haruko) at school, but be called by its Korean counterpart name (Choon Ja) at home.

After independence, the practice of naming girls a “Ja” name started to decline. But old practice dies hard. Among the baby girls born in 1948 (three years after WWII), the top two most popular names were “Soon Ja” and “Young Ja.” A decade later, there were no “Ja” names among the top 5. To share an anecdote, I personally know a family of four sisters. The oldest was born pre-1945, and she has a name ending with “Ja.” The second oldest sister was born a year after independence, but she still was given a “Ja” name. It was not until the third sister was born (in 1949) that they first named their daughter with a “non-Ja” name.

Female names ending with Ja became to be considered old-fashioned and outdated. Even an older actress like Sa Mi Ja (born in 1941) shared in her October 2010 interview that she hated her own name, Mi Ja, growing up. After she became an adult, she considered changing her name, but she finally opted not to after a psychic told her that her name would bring her great fortune. (Source)

Even in Korean dramas, you’ll encounter “Ja” names pretty frequently among older female characters. Typically, grandmother characters in dramas are simply referred to as “halmeoni” (Korean word for “grandmother” or “grandma”). However, if they are ever referred by name, pay attention to what their names are. You’ll notice that you’ll often encounter “Ja” names. For example, the name of the grandma in Shining Inheritance was Jang Sook Ja (played by BAN HYO JUNG).

As opposed to grandmothers, the names of characters who play the role of the parents are often at least mentioned in passing in dramas. The mom in More Beautiful than a Flower (played by GO DOO SHIM) was Lee Young Ja. The mom in Mom’s Dead Upset (played by KIM HYE JA) was Kim Han Ja. In My Love By My Side, the name of Seok Bin (played by OHN JOO WAN)’s mom was Bae Jung Ja (played by LEE HWI YANG). The eldest daughter-in-law in Flames of Ambition was Cha Soon Ja (played by LEE BO HEE).

In fact, names ending with Ja remained relatively common up until the 1960s. For instance, the real name of actress Geum Bora, who was born in 1963, is Son Mi Ja. By 1970s, however, it became pretty rare for parents to give their daughters a “Ja” name.

The “Ja” names are so common among older Koreans (over 60 years of age) that there are no negative connotations associated with it. But “younger” Korean women (between 40 to 60 years of age) born years after the Korean independence with those names are typically born from humble, rural, and/or less-educated households. While the rest of Korea moved away from these colonial period names, they were the last ones to “move with the times.”

In Old Miss Diary, the main protagonist is named Choi Mi Ja (played by YEH JI WON). Considering she played a woman in her early 30s in this 2004-2005 sitcom, that would place her year of birth some time in the early 1970s as one of the last batch of women to have been named a “Ja” name.  In one of the episodes, Mi Ja laments her own name, even going so as far as lying and introducing herself by a fake name on a blind date.

I personally would be very surprised to meet someone born after 1975 who has a “Ja” name.

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POST-INDEPENDENCE NAMES  (1945-1970s)

Korea was a patriarchal society, and to a large extent, it still is. Although this is not the attitude held by most Koreans today, boys were traditionally valued over girls. Thus, whereas parents might have spent much care in naming their boys to give meaningful names, parents of the past often named their daughters to play up their feminine traits about how girls should be.

Perhaps this is another reason why “Ja” names continued to be used after the colonial period. Instead of trying to come up with meaningful names, parents may have just continued to give their daughters names they grew up with and were familiar with.

Even from pre-colonial period, girl’s names ending with “Soon” were very common. Taken from the Chinese character 順, meaning pure, the character itself was often associated with “girl.” So parents just had to think of another character to place before “Soon” to come up a girl’s name.

If they did not want any more daughters and hoped the next child to be born was a son, perhaps the parents would name their newborn daughter Pil Soon. Made up of two Chinese characters, Pil (畢 meaning “end”) and Soon (順 meaning “pure”), you have a name that literally means “let’s end having daughters.”

Or a family of many daughters may have named their third daughter Sam Soon. Made up of two Chinese characters, Sam (三 meaning “three”) and Soon (順
meaning “pure”), you have a name that literally means “the third daughter.”

Over time, “Soon” names became considered outdated, old-fashioned, and tacky. Actress Kim Bo Yeon (born in 1957) uses a stage name, but her birth name is Kim Bok Soon. Made up of two Chinese characters, Bok (輻 meaning “good fortune”) and Soon (順 meaning “pure”), her name means a girl bringing good fortune. After her real name was revealed on TV, she became so embarrassed of it that she went out and officially changed her name legally. Her new legal name is now Kim Yoon Ju.

A more modified version of “Soon” (meaning “pure”) became “Sook” (meaning “demure”) in the 40s and 50s. In 1948, the third to fifth most popular names of girls were Jung Soon, Jung Sook, and Young Sook. (The first and second place went to Soon Ja and Young Ja as mentioned above.) In 1958, the top five most popular names of girls were Young Sook, Jung Sook, Young Hee, Myung Sook, and Kyung Sook. In 1968, the top five most popular names of girls were Mi Kyung, Mi Sook, Kyung Hee, Kyung Sook, and Young Sook.

Over the years, parents started to put as much care in giving meaningful names to their daughters as they did to their sons. And “Sook” and “Soon” names started disappearing. Like Ja names, since Sook and Soon names were so common in the past, people usually turn blind eye to them when found among Korean women 40 years of age and older.

But when these names are found among younger women, they may have grown up being embarrassed by their own names. Singer Chae Yeon’s birth name is Lee Jin Sook (born in 1978). She eventually changed her name legally to Lee Chae Yeon.

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KOREAN NAMES (late 1970s-early 1990s)

As discussed in the post on loanwords, Korean vocabulary is composed of native Korean words, Sino-Korean words, and other foreign loanwords.  All the names discussed so far are comparable to Sino-Korean words. However, starting in the late 1970s and up until the late 1980s/early 1990s, there was a boom* of naming babies with native Korean words. In such cases, instead of picking out Chinese characters and joining them together to come up with a name, a native Korean word is chosen as a name.

*Note that although it was a boom, the great majority of people continued to name their children with Chinese character (hanja) names. Also, this trend of giving Korean names were seen mostly among baby girls. Most parents opted for more traditional names with their boys.

Examples include Kim Sa Rang (born in 1978),  Kim Ha Neul (born in 1978), Han Ye Seul (born in 1981), and Park Han Byul (born in 1984). “Sarang” (사랑) is a native Korean word for “love.” “Haneul” (하늘) is a native Korean word for “sky.” In the name Han Byul, “han” (한) is a native Korean word for “one” for when the number is used as an adjective and not a noun, and “byul” is a native Korean word for “star.” Thus, han byul means “one star.”

Han Ye Seul is a stage name, and the actress’s actual name is Kim Ye Seul Yi. Here, “ye” is derived from the native Korean word “ye bbeun” (예쁜, meaning “pretty”) and “seul” is derived from the native Korean word “seulgi robda” (슬기롭다, meaning “wise”). “Yi” is a subject particle. Thus, her name means “the one who is pretty and wise.” Taking out the subject particle, her name becomes simply “pretty and wise.”

These names are called “순 한글 이름,” translated literally as “pure Korean names,” because they are not based off of Chinese characters. As such, these names cannot be expressed by hanja.

In fact, many three-syllable given names are pure Korean names. One of the members of the idol group 2ne1 is Park Sandara (frequently called Sandara Park, she was born in 1984). Sandara (산다라) is a native Korean name, and means “grow up brightly and healthily.” Brown Eyed Girls’ member Narsha is a stage name and her actual name is Park Hyo Jin. However, Narsha is actually a three-syllable native Korean name, pronounced as “Na Reu Sha” (나르샤). It is derived from the Korean words “na ra oh reu da” (날아오르다, meaning “fly high”). The given name of the Korean national soccer team player Yoon Bitgaram (born in 1990) is Bitgaram (빛가람). Here, “bit” (빛) is a Korean word for “light.” “Garam” (가람) is an old Korean word for river. Thus, his name Bitgaram literally means “light river,” or a “river in which light flows.”

“Pure Korean names” are not something new. Even in the past and in sageuk dramas, you may notice names like Ggot-nim (꽃님, meaning “flower dear”). However, these names were disdained by yangbans (people from the nobility class). Instead, these names were used by commoners and those in the lower class.

Starting in the late 1970s, but in full bloom in the 1980s, it became popular to give babies, mostly baby girls, “pure Korean names” over again. I do not know the exact reason for the boom. But I suspect it has to do with the growth in economic prosperity at that time. With higher standard of living, Koreans started to have more pride in things that are Korean. People started taking more interest in traditional Korean customs and cultures, looking back with pride at traditions like pansori and taekwondo. This was especially true in the years leading up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Besides the pride of giving their children a pure Korean name, those who prefer such names also think they sound aesthetically more pleasing to the ears. Also, unlike typical Korean names based off of Chinese characters whose meanings are not apparent without knowledge of Chinese characters, people typically know or can guess the meaning behind pure Korean names.

People who do not like these names usually criticize these names for being shallow. As opposed to names derived from Chinese characters that have separate meanings carried by each character, what you see is what you get in pure Korean names.

Another reason why pure Korean names started to lose their popularity is because some superstitious people believe that a person’s name and his date and time of birth determines that person’s fate in life. Because fortune tellers need the exact Chinese characters used in your name to determine your supposed fate, pure Korean names are discouraged because they supposedly don’t carry the right energy according to these people. (Note: There are actually name giving services in Korea. If you pay them, they help pick out a name for the child that would supposedly bring the best fortune for that child based on his birthdate and other information.)

People still name their babies with pure Korean names, but they’re not as common as they once were in the 1980s. Some other examples of pure Korean names include Dasom (old Korean word for love) and Ara (old Korean word for sea). In a recent episode of Twinkle, Twinkle, Han Jung Won (played by KIM HYUNG BUM) and Lee Eun Jung (played by JEON SOO KYUNG) have a son together and they name their son Woori. At one point, they have a conversation where one parent says, “What kind of Woori?” The other says, “Just Woori. Like woori, Woori.” Basically, here, one person was asking which Chinese characters will they be using by asking what kind of Woo Ri will this Woo Ri be. And the other responded that it’s a pure Korean name, like the word “woori.” You see, “woori” is a Korean word for “we,” “us,” or “our.” And thus, it won’t be any particular Woori, but just Woori. Get it?

PARODY NAMES

Some drama characters are given names of famous real-life or fictional figures. The drama Delightful Girl Chun Hyang is loosely based on the famous Korean folk tale, Chunhyangjeon. Practically every Korean out there is familiar with the story of Chun Hyang and her lover, Mong Ryong. The characters in the folk tale are Sung Chun Hyang, Lee Mong Ryong, Byun Hak Do, and the servants, Bang Ja and Hyang Dan. As a parody of the famous folk tale, most of the drama characters kept the names from the original folk tale. But the names of the “servant characters” were slightly modified to Bang Ji Hyuk and Han Da Hee in the modern drama.

MISCELLANEOUS

And then I finally come to a miscellaneous group of names that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the above categories, but that people might still find old-fashioned or tacky.

Chul Soo is a very common male Korean name. In fact, you might recognize that name from dramas such as What’s Up Fox (played by CHUN JUNG MYUNG), Hyena (played by KIM MIN JONG), or perhaps Fantasy Couple (played by OH JI HO).

But there’s a flashback scene in What’s Up Fox where Byung Hee (played by GO HYUN JUNG) remembers when she first saw her best friend’s newborn brother at the hospital maternity ward. Byung Hee asks her friend, “What his name?” Her friend, Seung Hye, answers that her brother’s name is Chul Soo. Byung Hee responds, “Chul Soo? That’s tacky.”* Why is that so?

*Note: The actual word she uses is “촌스러워,” and although “tacky” can be correct, the meaning is closer to “countrified” (meaning opposite of “chic”).

Chul Soo is the name of a character appearing in Korean primary school readers. Along with his female friend, Young Hee, they were used to teach Korean kids about morals, good behaviors, and to learn how to read and write.

Like Jack and Jill in American nursery rhymes, Chul Soo and Young Hee were always in pairs. They would learn about how to care for nature, get in scrapes and learn from their mistakes, and learn polite behaviors, such as saying “I’m sorry” after misbehaving, etc.

Though I’m not sure whether Chul Soo and Young Hee still make frequent appearances in Korean primary school readers of today, most Koreans (perhaps in their late 20s and older) would be familiar with these two names from their childhood.

When introducing yourself as Chul Soo, don’t be surprised if someone jokes and replies back, “Hey, where’s your Young Hee?”

Besides such examples, certain characters in Korean names are considered by many to sound old-fashioned. I’ve mentioned “Ja,” “Sook” and “Soon” for female names. But some examples in male names include “Chul,” “Taek,” “Bok” (like Song Seung Hun’s real name, Song Seung Bok), “Choong,” and “Bang.”

Names with such characters were more common among older generations. But Koreans today generally prefer softer sounding, unisex names, as opposed to names with many hard consonants. In 2008, the five most popular names for boys were Min Joon, Ji Hoon, Hyun Woo, Jun Seo, and Woo Jin. The five most popular names for girls were Seo Yeon, Ji Min, Min Seo, Seo Hyun, and Seo Yoon.

 Source: Newsis

Whereas softer sounding names like Il Woo, Hyun Woo, and Shi Hoo are considered to sound aesthetically pleasing these days, hard consonant names likes Chul Soo, Tae Pyung (Hyun Bin’s real name), Chil Hyun (H.O.T. member Kang Ta’s real name), Choong Jae (Shinhwa member Junjin’s real name), and Tae Geun (Ji Sung’s real name) are not as favored. Ji Sung’s real name, Tae Geun, is not too bad by itself, but when added to his family name, Kwak, Ji Sung explained that he took on his stage name because his full name, Kwak Tae Geun, sounded too “strong” and difficult to pronounce.

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And with that, we finally end our Korean names subseries! Woohoo!

It is difficult to get a hang of names from cultures that are not of your own. When I watched my first Japanese dorama, I literally went by five episodes without knowing any of the character’s names. Considering they tend to be shorter (10-12 epiosdes), that means that I watched half of the series without knowing the names of the characters.

I suspect that for those unfamiliar with the Korean language or its culture, it will be equally hard to remember and recognize Korean names. And even if you got the hang of it, you may not always understand why a certain character may hate her own name or be teased for it. Hopefully, now that you finished this subseries, you will find that Korean names are not as hard as you once thought they were. Or perhaps I just confused you even more. Yikes!

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59 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 4

  1. diorama says:

    I love your series! And yes, when I first started watching Korean dramas it took me a while to remember the characters’ names. It’s fascinating to see the etymology behind the names, as all these nuances usually go unnoticed by non-Koreans like me. In fact we have similar trends in my own culture; your name reflects your ethnic minority, religion, geographic origin, or how ‘traditional’ your family is.

    BTW, it was interesting to read about Han Ye Seul. I read that she grew up in the U.S. and was named ‘Leslie Kim’, so I’d just figured that Ye Seul Yi was just a Koreanization of the English name.

    • blue says:

      I think I heard about Han Ye Seul’s English name being Leslie too. If I remember correctly, she was born in Korea but then immigrated to the U.S. as a child, right? I think it’s likely that when picking out an English name, she picked the one that sounded the closest to her original Korean name. That’s actually a very common practice among immigrants.

      • just acos says:

        According to Wikipedia, she was actually born in the U.S. but her birth name really is Han Ye Seul. It sounds like she did what you mentioned and adopted a similar sounding English name: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_Ye_Seul

        • snow says:

          you mean her real name is Kim Ye-seul-yi. i like her real name, it sounds so pretty.

          thanks blue for such an informative and interesting name series! i really enjoyed reading all of it. names are so fascinating. have a quick question: is the name “seok/suk” common for boys? for example: “yoon suk”, “ji seok”, “min suk”, etc.

        • blue says:

          @snow,
          Yup, Seok/Suk is a common masculine character. Like Chul, it is a very masculine character that is used only in boy’s names.

  2. joonni says:

    Bows at your feet.
    Thank you for this lesson and series!
    I do like Hanja-based names because of the layer of meaning to them. It is like a tiny little puzzle that you carry around with you for life. As for full Korean names, I used to want to name my child with such because I like the gender ambiguity.
    I think (simply speaking from experience) a lot of girls born in the 80s have the syllable “eun” (은) in their name. Can you verify this?

    • blue says:

      I think you’re right! The top 5 most popular names from 1978 were Ji Young, Eun Jung, Mi Young, Hyun Jung, and Eun Ju. So two of the most popular names had “Eun” in them.

      The top 5 most popular names from 1988 were Ji Hye, Ji Eun, Soo Jin, Hye Jin, and Eun Ji. So again, two of the most popular names had “Eun” in them again in 1988.

      That is no longer true once you enter the 90s and 2000s. I’m an 80s baby as well, and I thought I personally encountered many “Jung” names among my peers. But perhaps they stood out to me because my own name has “Jung” in it. Hehe.

  3. estel says:

    This post is EXCELLENT. Naming conventions are difficult to get the hang of, even after you’ve picked up the rest of the language. This was a very interesting and informative read, thanks for taking the time to share this with us! I knew some of the stuff dealing with the hanja and the superstitions about auspicious names, since a Korean friend of mine gave me my Korean name that way. Incidentally, it’s Ji-min (‘지혜’ 지 and ‘하늘’ 민), which is also one of those unisex, smooth-sounding names, though I’ve never actually met another Ji-min in person.

    Thanks again! This is a great piece. ^_^

  4. Iviih says:

    Hi Blue and Bella, I hope I’m not bothering, but will you also do a article about the use of ”sshi/shi” at the end of names too? Just curious not demanding or something like this. Thank you for all these articles about Korean Language, they help a lot!

  5. wow, you REALLY helped me out with research with this culture crash course. THANKS a lot!

  6. thundie says:

    This post is daebak, blue. We’re not worthy!! *bows*

    You mentioned Im Sung-han (Assorted Gems). Coincidentally, a TP reader asked this question about an AG character’s name which I couldn’t answer. Could you help, pretty please? Muah!

    i’m really curious about why kkeut soon really hates her name
    does any one know the meaning of it?

  7. caffeinate_me says:

    Love your name series! But I think the name thing transcends all cultures. In my country, it was fashionable in the 70’s and 80’s to combine the parents’ names for the child but the end result sounded tacky so my friends who have these names always hated it. These days it’s also fashionable to have unique names (I personally love the ones taken from the language itself, like the ones you refer to as “pure Korean names”). I think it’s part of the Hollywood influence, like naming babies Zahara or Moses. My Chinese name was given by the temple and it means something like “safely Asian” but I don’t mind because I’ve only ever used that in class (yeah, I went to a school that taught Chinese as a foreign language instead of French or Spanish).

    One question, though: why do expatriate Koreans adopt an English name? I ask because I watched Scent of a Woman and the Ji Wook character was asked what name he used when he was studying in the States and he said Willy. Why did he need to use another name?

    • blue says:

      It’s for the similar reason as to why people choose to adopt a foreign name when taking foreign classes. People have a more difficult time pronouncing Korean names, so instead of trying to correct people’s pronunciation each time, some people choose to adopt a name of that culture where they’re staying. With one less barrier between the people, you’d have a better interpersonal interaction, or at least that’s the theory. And this can help with whatever purpose it is that you travelled, whether to learn English by practicing with native English speakers or for business purposes.

      • caffeinate_me says:

        Good point. Thanks for explaining, Blue. I suspect my real name would be hard to pronounce for Korean speakers as well:D. I look forward to your next post on the language and culture series! Keep it coming!

  8. tmc says:

    This is fascinating! Thanks for clearing up why some of these names are viewed as so tacky. I guess being named Sam Soon is kind of like the Korean girl’s equivalent of being named Mildred or Frances? haha

    • blue says:

      Yeah, you can say that. I’ve always compared it to having a name like “Bertha,” but when I told that to someone, she replied, “Umm, my grandma’s name is Bertha.” Oops.

  9. Just Tacos says:

    This series is SOOO informative! As a person who’s very interested in Korean culture, I loved the fact that you provided something that I had never fully understood. I’m so far removed from Korean culture that I never thought I would begin to be told how the naming system worked. However, I thank you so much for shedding some light on this =]

  10. christie says:

    Love this series! Can you explain why Ah Da Mo was a funny name in New Tales of Gisaeng?

    • blue says:

      My initial guess was that it was because it sounded like “ah dam,” which is a Korean word for “petite.” But I later read that his name is a play on Salvatore Adamo, a Belgian/Italian singer. In one of the episodes, the characters actually have a conversation about the said singer and his song, “Tombe la Neige.”

      • christie says:

        You are so awesome blue! I am enjoying learning about korean culture through your blog. I still have a long ways to go but your series is amazing and the absolute best presentation of the subject for me by far and ever.

  11. Beng-beng says:

    i love this series. i’ve always been wondering about the meaning behind the names. Too bad that in our country, gone were the use of names based on our own languages or dialests. Since Spanish colonization more than 500 years ago, our names were changed to spanish names or named after the Saints. Then when the Americans came a century ago, names became more English/American. I lament the continuous lost of our culture =(.

    I hope this thread will be kept alive coz I, for sure, will always come to this thread and ask you once in a while the meaning behind the name =).

    We are all eternally grateful to you =)

    • blue says:

      Are you from the Philippines? I had a talk about this with my friend one day. The loss of the culture seems something pretty universal these days, and Korea is experiencing it too. Very sad!

      And this thread will be always kept alive, so ask away if you ever have any questions! I won’t always know the answer, but I’ll answer them as long as I know!

  12. mrmz says:

    Thx!! That was very enlightening 😀

  13. Marti says:

    This was fantastic! I’ve enjoyed the series so far, so thank you! I am learning Korean at university, and sometimes I think I learn more from you guys in one post than a whole week 😉

  14. bonita says:

    nooo don’t end! thank you for taking the time to make our drama experience fuller!

    • blue says:

      Hehe, just the subseries on Korean names is ending. The rest of the language and culture series is still ongoing as long as we have something left to discuss!

  15. alexe says:

    Thank you so much for all your enlightening ! Very interesting . I like all your posts on Korean culture .

  16. dramaok says:

    Wow! You are so thorough. Very nice blog. Are you a teacher in real life? You would make a great one. I saw that one episode of 승승장구 with Ahn Nae Sang, and he said, his family had a generation name with the last character “Sang” for males and since his older brother was born at the mother’s maiden home, they named him 외상 (Ahn Weh Sang) for 바깥 외 (外) [outside home] + 상 (sang). and since Ahn Nae Sang was born at home, they named him 내상 with the 안 내 (内) [inside] + 상 [sang]. i agree Naesang sounds better than Wehsang, if you really had to pick one over the other. but they were probably both made fun of, growing up, with names like that.

    I think his parents were just desperate to add any character to their generational name, because he comes from a line of lots of boys, so all the possible characters you could use were all used up already. I know some ppl in real life who ended up with pretty weird names too, just because their family had a generation name and their parents were left w/ not too many choices when it came to names. but at the same time, it’s so nice to have a generational name. you are always reminded where you come from, and i like that kind of tangible reminder. so sweet.

    I’m surprised to hear Han Ye Seul was born in the U.S. o.O
    Thx for taking the time and trouble to write such a nice post!

    • blue says:

      Dramaok! It feels like it’s been ages ago since I last saw you online anywhere!

      Aww, thanks, but I’m not a teacher. I saw that episode of “Win Win” too! Ahn Nae Sang is definitely one interesting guy. My jaw dropped to the floor hearing his life stories. So unreal!

      I like the idea of generational names in concept, but if your generation is stuck with a weird character, you’re pretty screwed. Or if you have a large family with many cousins as was the case in Ahn Nae Sang’s family, someone is bound to end up with a weird-sounding name.

  17. InLove says:

    Thanks for the post. I love the Korean Language and Culture series!

  18. InLove says:

    😀 Naesang = “internal injury.” Wehsang = “external injury.”
    So after reading the whole post I can see that parents are the same everywhere– they gleefully wreak havoc on their children! My baby cousin is Hugh Leonard…a very distinguished name, but yes, he was born in 2011 and no, he’s not British.

  19. doozy says:

    Great job, blue! This post must’ve taken a lot time and research. Thank you!

  20. Softy says:

    Oh wow blue – here I go again questioning if I’m really Korean cuz I had no idea about this stuff – thank you for working so hard to enlighten us. I had to read this over like 3 times and I am STILL not sure if my Korean name is “pure” or not cuz I don’t know “hanja.” I just went thru life hearing other Koreans comment that my name was original and so far I never heard or met anyone with the same name. My mom wanted to make sure both her daughters didn’t have typical names so she went out of her way to be original for the spelling and meaning. I secretly thought she did it to torture me cuz you have no idea how many times in my life i had to correct every teacher at school when they called roll. As soon as they scrunched up their faces and paused when they got to my name cuz they didn’t know how to even start pronouncing it, I knew it was my name they were stuck on. The weird thing is, you would think in Korea, I wouldn’t have to correct ppl, but even Koreans mispronounce my name. It’s like I can’t win. The only plus side is at least Koreans always compliment me and say how pretty my name is. Your post made me realize that despite hating my Korean name while growing up, I now appreciate it as an adult. So many of my friends legally changed their Korean names to Kelli or Julie, but I chose to just use a nickname in my daily life. Why don’t I just change it? It’s for the same reason why I won’t have any cosmetic surgery done – God made me look this way so who am I to argue and want to make adjustments. As for my name, it makes me stand out in a city where the rest of me blends in so I kind of like that. 🙂

  21. Fanderay says:

    I love posts like this! I had no idea that all the names in City Hall meant something, and I’m definitely going to have my eyes peeled for all those old fashioned names now.

    When you say that Han Ye Seul’s birth-name ends with the particle “Yi” you’re referring to 이 right? That seems so bizarre to me. How does that work when she’s actually the subject of a sentence? Is the particle considered included already, or does it become 한예슬이가? To my English ears that sounds funny/cute.

    Even though I’m more familiar with Korean than Japanese, I still find Japanese names way easier to remember. I think part of the problem is that I partially use rhythm to remember names, and when they’re almost all 3 syllables that’s no longer a factor. I find it extra hard to keep Korean names straight because so many of them are so similar, and easy to mix up slightly. It took me forever to keep Kim Hyung Joon and Kim Hyun Joong straight. It also seems like so little of the Korean alphabet is used! As you mentioned, soft names are popular right now, and it feels like most names end in ng, n, or a vowel sound. I’m very thankful when I can think of an easy mnemonic to go with a name (for example, I remember Yong Hwa since it’s similar to 영화/movie). I probably only know LMH’s name because so many people call him Lee Min Hot.

    My name is English through and through, but it has a weird spelling that no one ever gets right (I like the weird spelling though, since it’s a boring name otherwise). Unfortunately my name is pretty hard for Japanese and Korean people to pronounce, so when I have kids I’m going to make sure to choose a name that is easy to say in any language!

    Thanks for all the awesome info Blue 🙂 I feel like I’m taking a modern history class…except that it’s interesting!

    • blue says:

      Yup, I was referring to 이 for Han Ye Seul’s name. So particles would apply to her name like they would for any name ending with 이, like 은이. It’s definitely a mouthful, which is probably why she shortened it to just Ye Seul.

      I agree that Kim Hyun Joong and Kim Hyung Joon are very similar names, but they would likely confuse even many native speakers. It doesn’t help that they are (were?) in the same group!

      I’ve noticed that your Korean writing is very good. Are you Korean by any chance?

      • Fanderay says:

        Nope; in fact, I’m so white I’m practically blinding! Genetically I’m a European mutt, although I’m basically just a Canadian.

        I started learning Korean a few months ago, and it feels like it’s going pretty fast. I used to study Japanese and I actually learned about 1600 of the joyo kanji before I quit, so I’m loving that I don’t HAVE to learn hanja to be able to read Korean. I also adore hangeul. The Korean writing system is so logical it blows my mind! The only hard part sometimes is spelling, since if I hear certain words I don’t always know if a consonant goes at the end of one hangeul or the start of the next (since Korean uses re-syllabification and it would be pronounced the same either way).

        Speaking of hanja, what’s the norm in Korea for how many people know? And how often are they used?

        Sorry, I don’t mean to treat you like an encyclopedia, but I think I’m getting addicted to asking you questions!

        • bella012 says:

          I have to look up the statistics on this one to confirm but offhand, I read that because the hanja is not readily taught in schools anymore- more than 70% of the Gen Y-ers don’t know it.

          You will most readily see it in the news e.g. like death, marriage, etc. I have seen it when people are trying to figure out the names of their kids, mine has a “Mi” in there. Or if you have seen Delightful Girl ChoonHyang, there is a scene where Mong Ryong’s dad is trying to figure out a name for his non-existant grandchild.

          More often than not, the international crowd has seen the hanja when news of a celebrity suicide hits, which is where I have seen it on a wider scale.

          It’s actually quite useful to know the hanja because it makes learning the hangul that much simpler since several different meanings for the characters are combined.

        • blue says:

          Just to confirm what bella wrote above, I don’t know hanja myself, except for my own name and some basic characters that practically everyone knows. Otherwise, I just look them up when occasion rises.

          Koreans start learning hanja at school I believe in middle school. But like any other school subjects, the studious students end up being very good at it and others, not very much so. And unlike English, which Korean parents try to push for their kids to excel in, that’s not the case with hanja education.

          There are certain occupations that you cannot go by without knowing it, though. For instance, it’s impossible to become a lawyer in Korea without knowing hanja because most law books have a great deal of hanja in them. The same for Oriental medical doctors.

          Btw, Fanderay, I’m so impressed with your Korean. I suspected you may not be Korean because of a comment you wrote about yourself in your blog, but I got confused because your Korean handwriting on your artworks looked like that of someone who has been writing in Korean for a long time. So if you’ve been learning Korean for a few months now, do you also understand the spoken language and speak it yourself? I would think that Korean writing is much easier to learn than the spoken language.

        • Fanderay says:

          I got compliments on my Japanese writing too, so I think I must just pick up new writing styles well. I certainly wish I could pick up the actual language as quickly, but unfortunately that’s not even close to the case. My vocabulary is still very limited, and I don’t understand all that much. When I’m listening I usually pick up the sentence structure, and can tell how the verbs are being conjugated, but I don’t know enough actual vocab words to understand the overall meaning. I’ve never had an opportunity to speak Korean, except to my dog, and talking to him is pretty much just “Ya!! Hajima!”

          I think if I was Korean I would be the nerd who wanted to learn hanja. In fact, I may learn some anyways, but I suppose I should spend more time on the actual language first 😛

  22. gailt says:

    Wow! Daebak! Thank you for researching and writing this post. I can totally relate because names are really my hang-up in any language. It both fascinates and frustrates me. I’m one of those Filipinos with the combination name. It’s really my complex. Yes, my parents gave me a unique name by combining their names (my sister jokes at it’s because I’m eldest therefor a love-child) and they were thoughtful to make it 2 first names instead of smooshing them together ( at least i can go by either name), but it still gives me grief. People think it’s cute and I almost legally changed it. But I realized that fighting against the name is irrevocably part of who I am, so I guess I’ll live with it until the next bout of name-hate. 🙂

  23. nonski says:

    wonderful post blue! you gave meaning to the phrase “what’s in name?”. thank you for this new info i can add to my korean knowledge “vault”. 🙂

    p.s.
    awww i hate power failure! i thought i had posted this message way back just to check it out again that i had no comment here.

  24. Tuttie says:

    WAO!!!!!! Daebak!! I found your blog earlier this week, and like Rain said once: I’m so excited!! You give us precious info in such a light and easy way that we can learn without feeling burdened. I have been a Kdrama, Kpop and Korean culture fan for 5 years now, and had taken 3 levels of Hangul…. (enjoyed your speech levels post, VERY USEFUL and ENLIGHTENING) Pretty difficult, but now I’m able to pick on full sentences and jokes, references and songs from variety shows and Kdramas. Thank you for sharing your culture with the world, never been in a blog where the blogger answers the comments so personally, I’m amazed!!!! Seems like you are pretty friendly too… no offense, but, the Koreans I’ve met in my country(DR) aren’t so much… They are very polite, but unlike Americans or Europeans, they are not very friendly towards non-Koreans, but I know is a Cultural thing, so I don’t take it personal.
    Well, if’s not too much to ask, being a fan of Korean names ( I named myself Min Ah…. 😀 ) Can you tell me the meaning behind Hyun Joong(SS501 leader/flying solo) and Yong Hwa (CNblue leader) nems? and of course Min Ah …. I love how those names sound, for me anything with Yong and Min sounds great… Met a Young-Min online, once, he was borne in Korea and moved to Uruguay when he was 8…And the Korean teacher I had was named Po Mi( 보 미) which she translated as PIETY or Piedad in Spanish. Well, I”ll stop talking now… (sorry for any mistakes as for English is not my native language)
    Thanks again!!!!
    PD:Have you thought about writing n Kdramas staple food and drinks.. being a Korean food fan myself, can barely resist whenever I watch food scenes… Koreans love to eat, drink and sing.. Lovely!!!

    Tuttie 😀

    • blue says:

      Hi Tuttie!
      DR? As in Dominican Republic? My first thought was that I didn’t realize there were many Koreans living there. Hehe, well, thanks for being so excited about our blog!

      As for your questions, in order to know the meaning behind most Korean names, you need to know what Chinese characters (called hanja) they are using. As in the case of Lee Min Ho and Lee Min Woo, you can’t know that just by the name itself.

      Luckily, information about the hanja used in both Kim Hyun Joong and Jung Yong Hwa’s names were readily available. I guess that’s the positive and the negative about being an idol star. Fans know everything about you!

      Hyun (wisdom) and Joong (precious) = Kim Hyun Joong’s name means “wise and precious”

      Yong (face) and Hwa (amicable) = Jung Yong Hwa’s name means “having an amicable face”

      As for your own name, Min Ah, there are many different options for “Min” or “Ah” you can choose from. But if I may make a suggestion, how about 敏 (clever “Min”) and 雅 (graceful “Ah”)?

      I had not thought of writing about food and drinks, but now that you mentioned it, it’s a great suggestion! Anything in particular you had in mind?

    • Fanderay says:

      Oooh, I’m putting my vote in for some food-related posts! I kept seeing jjinppang mandu in dramas, and eventually I couldn’t take it anymore so I tracked down a recipe and tried them out. Unfortunately my husband thinks they’re pretty much the best thing ever, which would be great if they weren’t so labor intensive.

      I feel like you should publish a book with all these posts! They’re way more useful and informative than anything in a bookstore.

  25. Tuttie says:

    Thanks to you for answering!!!!.. Yes, as in Dominican Republic. The population is not that noticeable, unlike Chinese people(they even have a little Chinatown). The mayority lives in a particular area of the city, near the 2 out of 3 Korean restaurants availables, a church and a school, to teach Hangul to Korean kids on the weekends . The KOICA, the Embassy as well as the consulate are on the same area too.

    Well about food… I think the most common food we find in Kdrama are Jajjanmyung, samgyupsal, mandu, mandu-guk, Bibimpab(that Full House scenes are to die for) , Ramyun and Pojanmacha food (Fish cakes, Dubboki and those long sticks that flower boy Ku Jun Pyo ate on a street stall….are those fish cakes also???) and sea weed soup for birthdays(so meaningful in many Korean dramas !!!Kim sam Soon, Stairway to Heaven, etc). And we have to say Kimchi, the protagonist of Korean food. Since Korean food is such an extense topic, you could focus in the Food-Kdrama that makes us want to run and get some! I confess many times I have hit pause and run to the kitchen to make Ramuyn and add the Bean paste that I keep in my fridge(before I knew where to buy it in the DR I brought from the states like a treasure) and eat them with my stainless steel chopsticks, to get the feeling right 😀 . And one of my favorites, but havent seen it much on KDramas is Japchae… ohhhh mashketa!!!

    As for desserts… Noticed they prefer fruits more than sweets, but I have seen the rices cakes( Once made a recipe of rice flour balls, stuffed with red bean paste and covered with sesame seed powder… Those were yummy!!!)……..
    As for drinks, Soju is a most( SO strong, I could only take 2 sips!!!), Makkoli and Sikhye, wich is so sweet…..

    Well, thanks again and very kind of you to acknowlogde my suggestion.

    Fighting!!!

  26. supah says:

    *applause* You’ve been absolutely fantastic with these. You’re just fantastic! ❤

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