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!
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 Story, Assorted Gems) is particularly known to do this in her dramas.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!