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On names in Korea

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By Mark Peterson

Last time I wrote about the surprising news report that one Korean company was requiring all employees to use English names in office communications. I've been thinking about that a little more.

One of the epic images of Korean abuse at the hands of the Japanese was the requirement that "good citizens of the emperor" take on Japanese names. Perhaps the most iconic representation of that issue was the best-selling book, one of the first New York Times bestsellers of a book on Korea, "Lost Names", by Richard Kim. Of all the depravations of the Japanese era, one of the worst was depriving someone of their own name.

There are other fascinating traditional features of names and name usage in Korea. People are often struck by Korean "name avoidance" — the practice of calling each other by a title in the office rather than a name. And outside of the office, in social settings, at church or in the neighborhood, there are all kinds of examples of name avoidance. Women addressed by their baby's name is a common example.

And in the office, people are referred to often by their titles. The idea of using English names is a quest to eliminate all the status markers of office position and seniority. These features of the traditional office are loaded with hierarchy. Dropping titles, and even picking up a new name is aimed at "horizontality" — equal footing for junior and senior in the office. The point being not to stifle new ideas from new people, particularly in the age of rapid technological innovations.

Using English names, however, opens a whole new can of worms, as they say. Maybe I should say there are unintended consequences. The structure of English names and that of Korean names is exactly opposite from each other. What I'm getting at is the uniqueness on the one hand and the commonality on the other. Korean names are very obviously "common" for the surname — meaning there are few choices. There are only 250 names to choose from, and 55 percent of the choices are limited to the first five names — Kim, Yi, Bak, Choe and Jeong. (You may prefer the spellings Lee, Park and Choi, but it's the same name — don't make a thing of the English spelling!)

And in Korean, the given name contains the "uniqueness" that prevents too many people from having the same name. There are an infinite number of given names available to the Korean population. Infinite. Whereas, for the English names, the given name is rather limited to a few popular choices, but the surname is almost infinite. Especially in America, the melting pot, the gathering place, with surnames from all around the world. I'm constantly amazed at new surnames I find — in any given football game, there are bound to be players with a last name emblazoned on the back of his jersey that I've never seen before.

The problem comes when the commonness of the given name is linked to the commonness of the surname — an English first name with a Korean family name. Common plus common yields very little variety and a lot of people with the same name. James Kim, Richard Kim, Michael Kim, Eric Kim, John Kim, Robert Kim. Or on the female side, — let's use Lee this time — Helen Lee, Grace Lee, Rachel Lee, Heather Lee, Hilary Lee, Mary Lee, Martha Lee. The chances of finding someone with the same name is a high probability with this combination.

Try the opposite. How many people called Jeonghee Wojakowski are there — Or Heejin Anderson. Or Herin Nordmeyer. Or Yeongbin Swartz. Or Hyeonah Nakamura — now in these cases we have the more-unique matched with the more-unique for a truly unique name.

The Hong Kong Chinese have been doing this much longer. They picked up Anglo first names some decades ago. They recognized that the more-common given name matched with the more-common surname (China have more than Korea, but still on the less-unique side) yields a very common, non-unique name. So they have noticeably gone to unusual first names — I know a Farfala, and a Gabriela, a Kaiser, a Maxine, a Chanel and a Catalina.

When I wrote last time about the adoption of English names by a large company in Korea, the response was interesting. Evenly split, maybe slightly in favor of the practice, but there were those who didn't like it as well. It was good, some argued for achieving horizontality in the workplace. But almost as many said it was destructive of tradition and of Korean culture.

Years ago, I haven't seen it lately, there were times when Korean leaders decried the use of foreign words, particularly on signage around the city. They argued for purity of the language. You don't see that argument any more. We live in a global village with lots of words from other languages have become a part of our own. And that's happening in all kinds of ways in Korea — including one of the most personal of cultural items; one's name.

Mark Peterson ( is a professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.


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