How to Name a Baby in South Korea

What's in a name? A pregnant co-worker of mine just told me that she's expecting a daughter. After some enthusiastic congratulations were offered, I asked if she and her husband had any names in mind. "No," she said. "We don't think about that until after the baby is born." Koreans like to consult fortune tellers for major events, of which having a baby is just one. The fortune teller, armed with the baby's birthdate and parental information (and I'm sure blood type), will come up with some choices for the lucky parents, who then choose their favourite name.

Almost all Korean names are three syllables: the first is the family name and the last two make up the given name. There's no "middle name" like in Western names. Tradition states that given names are rooted in Chinese characters (like family names) and the meanings are very important, more so than names in Western countries, where names are usually chosen for their sound. One of my friend's name, for example, means "big success" and another means "honour and virtue."

There are other naming traditions, too. Siblings usually share one of the two syllables in his or her name. As my friend already has a child, I expect that her second daughter will share one half of her name with her sister. Not only do siblings (or even cousins) share a syllable, but it's always in the same position. So if the eldest daughter's name is Eun Kyung (grace and honour), her sister might be Eun Mi (grace and beauty) or Eun Ae (grace and love). Also, kids take their father's family name, even though mothers keeps their family names.

Like other traditions, things are changing in Korea. For the past couple decades, families have been naming their kids pure Korean names, as in, names that can't be written in Chinese characters. My Korean name, which was given to me by my students, is a pure Korean name. It's Miso, which means "smile." Many families don't follow the generational shared name tradition, either. And, when I asked another Korean friend about naming a baby with a fortune teller's recommendations, the response was a huge, "What? Why would they do that? That's so dumb!"---which leads me to believe that tradition's on its way out, too.

Name are considered to be very important in Korea. So important, in fact, that it's considered rude to actually call someone by their name. I don't even know some of my elders' names because I've always called them by their titles. It's awkward (for me, at least), but that's the way it is.

What's in a name? In Korea, a lot.