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Weird English spelling of Koreans' names

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Celebrities still use eccentric names

By Lee Min-hyung

A number of Korean celebrities, from business circles to politics, use eccentric English spelling of their names.

They include Korea Development Bank Chairman Lee Dong-gull, a powerful financial expert who is in charge of many corporate restructuring programs, former presidential secretary Woo Byung-woo, and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon.

Woo flexed his muscles during the Park Geun-hye administration but is now behind bars as he is allegedly embroiled in the political corruption scandal involving the former president and her confidant Choi Soon-sil.

Ban, after finishing his two terms at the U.N., threw his hat into politics last year by vying to run in the presidential election in May. But he bowed out before parties selected their candidates.

In the business sector, those who are using such odd-sounding names are Netmarble Games Chairman Bang Joon-hyuk and former KT Chairman Lee Suck-chae. The former is one of the richest people in Korea after his company's initial public offering this year. The latter led the country's largest telecom company in the late 2000s and the early 2010s.

In the entertainment sector is Kim Jae-duck, a former top idol member from SECHSKIES.

Even if the English spellings are just a mere translation of their Korean ones in terms of pronunciation, it would have been better for the celebrities not to have chosen such words as "suck" or other existing English words as shown in "gull" or "bang."

They might not have expected English to get more and more influential at the time they created their English names. But chances are English speakers may be confused upon hearing such oddly spelled English names.

Why they don't change names

"Many Koreans make English names when they are very young. Hence, they usually spell their English names without enough knowledge of the language," said a professor in a Seoul university who asked not to be named. "They can change their names through revising their passports. But for some people, it is not easy to do so."

He took the example of those who studied overseas.

"Once they got diplomas or certificates in foreign countries, the costs of changing English names are great. Let's say Lee Sang-duck, an imaginary person, got a master's degree from Harvard University. If he changes his name to Lee Sang-deok, the new name would not be in the list of Harvard graduates," he said.

"Maybe Lee can ask Harvard to change the name. But it would be very complicated. In the case of high-profile figures like entertainers or businesspeople, they also cannot easily change their names because theirs are already widely known."

Funny names are not specific for Koreans. Japanese and Chinese also have eccentric spelled names.

For example, the name of Yuudai Kamei, a Japanese motorcycle racer, sounds like "you die."

Renowned Japanese photographer, named just Yuria, sounds like "urea," a chemical compound of urine.

"The names of people in Korea, Japan and China are mostly based on Chinese characters. While translating the names to English in terms of pronunciation, funny things tend to happen," the professor said. "That would be the case for other countries outside Asia, too."

Lee Min-hyung


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