Name games in Hong Kong

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Just a little over a year ago, I wrote a post about “‘Farcical names’” (4/3/15), in which I related how an American businesswoman wanted to rescue Chinese from their predilection for adopting whimsical English names.

Now, in “iPhone, Cola and Kinky: what’s in a Hong Kongers name?” (SCMP 3/7/16), we find that the “Trend for Hongkongers choosing unusual English names continues as they compete to find most original one”.

Soufflé, Arial, Focus, Hippo and Kinky. They might sound like the members of an avant-garde electro-pop band, but in fact they are just some of the more unusual names that Hongkongers are going by in 2016.

So why are quirky names so popular in Hong Kong and how do we explain their evolution? Post-colonial British influences mean most Hongkongers have an English name that they commonly use at work or amongst friends, while at home they will often answer to their Chinese name or nickname.

The tradition seems to vary according to a person’s class. Upper-class and Western-educated parents typically give their children English names at birth or soon after. Some Chinese parents pay feng shui masters up to HK$25,000 to come up with an original name for their child based on factors such as the time of their birth and characteristics they want their kids to have later in life. Feng shui dates as far back as 4000 BC in China. It remained popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1960s while being pushed out of China during the Cultural Revolution. It has since regained popularity in Hong Kong. It is sometimes used to choose a new name for a child later in life if a family believes they are suffering from cosmic problems, i.e. bad luck.

The passion for unique names is no less true of the Mainland.  We receive hundreds of applications and inquiries from individuals who want to come to Penn as students or visiting scholars, and I’m sure that this is true of virtually all other schools in the country.  I’m often bowled over at some of the English names they have:  Echo, Cinderella, Peter Pan (a girl), Something…. Over the years I’ve seen an endless stream of mind-boggling English names from China.

It seems to me that innovation in naming is a trend that is increasing not just in Hong Kong and the PRC, but across the world.  Just go to your local convenience store, and you’re likely to find that the people working behind the counters have unique names.  Sometimes I’m so intrigued by them that I ask, “Where did you get your interesting name?” and they’ll say something like, “My mom made it up.”

This is so different from when almost everybody in America took, or were given, Christian names, even if they weren’t Christians.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]



49 Comments

  1. Thorin said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

    I get a lot of people asking about my name. I have to explain that my dad, a Norwegian, is such a huge Tolkien fan that he named me after his favourite character – and the name, because it’s Tolkien we’re talking about, is Norwegian as well.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

    Any mention of this topic among a bunch of Hong Kong expats will automatically degenerate into a game of “Who knows someone with the most extraordinary name?” Having not seen the comments on the SCMP article, I can predict right now that a good portion of those comments will consist of, “I knew a guy named …”

    Since it’s unavoidable, I suppose now I must play as well:
    – At my previous job, I sat between the translator, Almond Chan, and the accountant, Neptune Ling
    – The media sales rep, one Billboard Chan, came to visit us frequently
    – My husband’s fund salesperson reveled in the moniker Happy Ho

    And there are so many, many more.

  3. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

    > It seems to me that innovation in naming is a trend that is increasing not just in Hong Kong and the PRC, but across the world.

    I wonder how cyclical this is. I believe I’ve seen surprisingly old quotes talking about the craziness of names “nowadays”. You can see at least one such cycle in the names of US Presidents: after a half-century of Jameses and Johns, we get a Zachary, a Millard, and a Franklin, followed shortly afterward by Abraham, Ulysses, and Rutherford, before we settle back down into James, Chester, Grover, and Benjamin.

  4. Zeppelin said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 8:28 pm

    US-American names often strike me as odd and idiosyncratic — there’s a tendency to use last names as first names (Cooper, Tanner, Jackson…), and there are those much-maligned “creative” spellings of names like “Kaitlyn”. And African-Americans especially often seem to make up names based on personal preferences (assembling them from the syllables of other names they like, say), as opposed to referring back to some kind of naming tradition.
    I wonder if it’s a similar phenomenon? After all, Americans are also picking among names taken from languages and naming traditions that aren’t usually those of their ancestors.
    I don’t think I’ve come across Germans with names that were straight-up invented by their parents, or who had a last name for a first name (that I could identify). Parents who are looking to be original here tend to pick first names from popular foreign languages, mostly. And Lithuanian naming seems very conservative. I must have met twenty men called Vytautas by this point, and at least ten women named Eglė.

  5. Zeppelin said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

    Oh, naming girls for abstract concepts is another one — names like Faith or Hope.

  6. hanmeng said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 9:15 pm

    @ Zeppelin,

    German names are legally regulated, and the local bureaucracy may reject names it disapproves of.

    Meanwhile, historically at least, Chinese were able to give their kids just about any name they liked, weren’t they? Even the poor parents who wanted to prove their loyalty to the Communist state by naming their 3 kids Aiguo 愛國 (Love the Country), Aimin 愛民 (Love the People), Aidang 愛黨 (Love the Party). Too bad it sounded like 愛國民黨 (loving the KMT).

  7. Mark Mandel said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 11:21 pm

    @Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: But unlike the HK inventions, none of those currently unfashionable American names are made up or non-names. Zachary and Abraham are biblical (as is Benjamin), Ulysses is mythical, and Millard, Franklin, and Rutherford are surnames (like Grover and Chester).

  8. Andy Watkinson (@Andy_BCN) said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 11:26 pm

    Latin America also has a strong tradition of unusual names.

    Elvis is popular, but is to be expected.

    I’m not so sure about:
    “Email”
    “James Bond”
    “Dysney Landia”
    “Madeinusa”
    etc…..

  9. Sili said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 12:52 am

    Feng shui dates as far back as 4000 BC in China.

    Is that actually true? Or is it like ‘traditional Chinese medicine’, which didn’t come into vogue until Mao ran out of real doctors?

  10. pj said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 1:54 am

    I’m often bowled over at some of the English names they have: Echo, Cinderella, Peter Pan (a girl), Something…

    To be fair to the Chinese, I know an impeccably white Anglophone British family with a daughter called Echo. Obviously it’s not usual as a given name, but it doesn’t strike me as all that outlandish, if you’re after something distinctive for your daughter, to name her after a beautiful nymph from classical mythology.

  11. The suffocated said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 4:38 am

    Soufflé, Arial, Focus, Hippo and Kinky. They might sound like the members of an avant-garde electro-pop band, but in fact they are just some of the more unusual names that Hongkongers are going by in 2016.

    Arial is both a given name and a family name. The reporter probably didn’t know that.

  12. Keith said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 6:00 am

    Israelis, also, seem to enjoy giving invented names to their children. One Israeli friend explained to me that he and his wife had chosen a Hebrew name for their daughter based on their own Hebrew names. I forget the details, but it was somthing like one parent’s name meaning “earth” or “land”, and the other meaning “sky” or “heaven”, so the name they chose for their daughter was “horizon”, i.e. the place where earth and sky meet.

    Many countries in Europe and Scandinavia have (or had until recently) fairly strict rules, including that it must be possible to decline (grammatically, I mean) the name in all the cases of the official language of the country, and adhere to the traditional gender of the name (i.e., a boy’s name for a boy, a girl’s name for a girl).

    It used to be a common tradition in some parts of Northern England to give the mother’s maiden name as a middle name to a child, this seems to have been maintained in the US and I wonder if it is the origin of the widespread use of family names as first names (like Taylor, Mackenzie, etc.)

  13. Bill Benzon said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 6:37 am

    When I was living in upstate New York I met some African American kids named Entropy, Chemo, and Centrod (no “i”).

  14. Rodger C said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 6:49 am

    I’ll bet Madeinusa pronounces it Ma-dei-NU-sa.

  15. Rodger C said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    It was quite a while ago that Mencken pointed out the prevalence of unique names among African Americans and also, I think, Southern whites, and “blamed” it on their being Baptists with no priests to give them sensible names.

  16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 7:36 am

    You can see at least one such cycle in the names of US Presidents: after a half-century of Jameses and Johns, we get a Zachary, a Millard, and a Franklin, followed shortly afterward by Abraham, Ulysses, and Rutherford, before we settle back down into James, Chester, Grover, and Benjamin.

    Chester and Grover strike me as rather odd names as well – Chester is a city; I’m not sure what Grover is. Perhaps these names have stuck around because of the presidents who bore them, but I wouldn’t see their rise as a return to normality as such.

    (Though more recently I suppose there has been rather a lot of normality – Richard, Gerald, Jimmy, Ronald, George, Bill, and George again – until we reach Barack.)

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 7:38 am

    US-American names often strike me as odd and idiosyncratic — there’s a tendency to use last names as first names (Cooper, Tanner, Jackson…)

    That’s by no means unknown in the UK: it seems to happen especially with Scottish names for some reason (Stuart, Bruce, Keith, Graham, Gordon, Douglas…) but also with English names (Howard, Russell, Sidney).

  18. Sky Onosson said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 7:57 am

    There might plausibly also be some influence from the (more common in the past?) practice of altering surnames by immigrants and their families. My own name was changed from the Ukrainian Onofreychuk to Onoferson by my grandfather, who told people he was Swedish to avoid anti-Ukrainian prejudice which was common when he grew up. My parents then reduced it to Onosson, which is always mistaken for Icelandic though I have no such ancestry. Given the high numbers of people from immigrant background in N. America, I’d imagine many people have such stories in their family history.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    @Sili:

    Fēngshuǐ 風水 (lit., “wind-water”, i.e., “geomancy”), did not exist as a name or a textual body of knowledge at 4000 BC. Claims for such early dates are extrapolated from archeological sites, and often involve very iffy astronomical and cosmological alignment of the remains of structures. The very one that is supposed to go back to 4000 BC, Puyang, has recently been discredited as a Neolithic representation of a shaman flanked by a dragon and tiger, though I can’t find any mention on the web of the doubt that has been cast on it, with hundreds of mentions of the site as evidence for the origins of fengshui still all over (see here, here, here, and here).

    Fengshui as a body of lore and practice didn’t really get going until around the Warring States period (475-221BC).

    @pj

    You’re right about the roots of “Echo” in classical mythology, but when I called the student in question by that name at the beginning of the course last semester, there was an audible gasp from the other 35 students in the room.

    @The suffocated:

    Arial is also the name of a well-known typeface and computer font.

    @Sky Onosson

    Thank you for the interesting explanation of your surname. I often wondered about it (like a combination of Greek [Onassis] and Scandinavian [-son ending]). And is “Sky” your real first / given name, or is it your nom de web? I’ve had students from China who call themselves Sky, Sky this, this Sky, etc.

  20. Sky Onosson said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    @Victor Mair

    Sky is my given (middle) name. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that I can translate it directly into any language.

  21. Francois Lang said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:41 am

    Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter is named Apple.

    Frank Zappa’s daughter is named Moon Unit.

  22. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:55 am

    I’m aware of one family who thought that a child should be allowed to chose his (broad construction) own name at age nine. This explains Loki Skylizard, a highly respected local surgeon.

  23. KeithB said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    And Dweezil Zappa is not worthy of comment?

    I just met a 3 year old named Anakin.

  24. Mark Metcalf said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    My father-in-law, surnamed Pan 潘, was given his English name, Peter, by an English language teacher in the 1940s. Fortunately he has taken it all in stride as he is very self-deprecating and has an incredible sense of humor.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    Dweezil (Zappa) reminds me of our recent discussion of “Dzwil” (11/3/15), with a little bit of “dweeb” added to break up the consonant cluster at the beginning.

  26. The suffocated said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    @Sky Onosson

    Given the high numbers of people from immigrant background in N. America, I’d imagine many people have such stories in their family history.

    Indeed. The former U.S. Secretary of The Treasury, Lawrence Summers, whose father had changed the family from Samuelson to Summers, is a well-known example.

    @Victor Mair

    Arial is also the name of a well-known typeface and computer font.

    I know. What I mean is, the reporter was probably blinded by the great renown of the font family name, without even realising that it could well be a human family name too. That a news article already shows its lack of fact-checking in the opening sentence is appalling.

  27. cameron said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 11:08 am

    The tendency toward unique invented name among African Americans and Mormons in the US is well known. Someone above mentioned similar practices in Latin America. I’m not so sure about Latin America in general, but there is definitely a trend toward this sort of whimsical inventiveness in Cuba, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 11:22 am

    Keith: It used to be a common tradition in some parts of Northern England to give the mother’s maiden name as a middle name to a child, this seems to have been maintained in the US and I wonder if it is the origin of the widespread use of family names as first names (like Taylor, Mackenzie, etc.)

    I think so, and another origin is naming boys after admired figures: Milton, Newton, Franklin, Lincoln, etc. Then it spread to girls.

    Andrew (not the same one): Maybe part of the reason for the popularity of Scottish surnames as given names is the trend for Celtic and Celtic-associated names that started in the last century: Kevin, Sean, Ian, Caitlin, Patrick, Erin, Brittany, etc.

    Of course only British and Irish surnames get used as given names in English-speaking countries. (Trivia question: What are two common exceptions?) A strange result is that British and Irish surnames are sometimes used as given names in Latin America, but Spanish and Portuguese ones hardly are at all. Aside from Perez Hilton, I did recently see Sanchez as a given name, if I could only remember where.

    Among British and Irish surnames, those starting with “M(a)c” are very rarely used as given names, other than “Mackenzie”. One exception was McGeorge Bundy. Those starting with “O'” are even less often used.

  29. Tim said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    These discussions always remind me of a particular Mike Doughty song.

  30. Thorin said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 11:58 am

    @Jerry McKinley is a given name I’m seeing more frequently as well.

  31. Sky Onosson said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

    @Thorin

    McKinley Morganfield was blues singer Muddy Waters’ actual name, though I’m guessing that doesn’t have much to do with any recent trends.

  32. CuConnacht said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    Some last names as first names are so common or some famous in the UK that no one thinks of them as last names. Just among Prime Ministers: Gordon,Winston, Neville, Stanley and Spencer (reaching back to the eighteenth century for the two PMs named Spencer, admittedly).

    And I don’t know if any of these wouod raise an eyebrow in the UK:

    Barry
    Bruce
    Cecil
    Clark
    Clinton
    Clive
    Craig
    Desmond
    Douglas
    Eliot
    Elton
    Gary
    Graham/Graeme
    Howard
    Keith
    Kingsley
    Lloyd
    Mason
    Milton
    Murray
    Norman
    Percy
    Perry
    Rodney
    Russell
    Scott
    Sheridan
    Sidney
    Stewart
    Trevor
    Vernon
    Wallace/Wallis
    Wayne

  33. CuConnacht said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 3:38 pm

    Sorry about typos. “So common or so famous”, “would”, and probably others.

  34. Graeme said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:21 pm

    Whilst it’s sociological interesting to speculate on the ‘who’ and motivations, linguistically it’s inevitable at some level. Populations expand and English language use is expanding even faster. As the Dorises, Gladyses, Cyrils die and the names lose fashion, we either recycle or invent.

  35. Rakau said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

    I have often wondered why first nations people in the US/Canada use translated names such as Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse etc. Here in Aotearoa (New Zealand) we use our own words from Te Reo Maori (indigenous polynesian language) such as Mihi (greeting), Nga Roimata (the tears), Mihiata (greeting ghe dawn) or Nga Kahikatea (the White Pines). We never translate these into english as given names or surnames.

  36. Wulf said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    Somehow, in the midst of the conservative, boring American 1950’s, my parents gave me the name Wulf. Without the benefits of social media, I always thought my name was pretty unique (Germans seemed to prefer the Wolf spelling). But I discovered through Facebook that there are at least two other Wulves in the world (one in Great Britain, and one in Germany). Recently, I checked LinkedIn, and it shows a whole pack of them. The Wulf spelling is still rarer than any of the Wolf variations that I know of, but Wulf with a “u” has nice Iron Age ring to it.

  37. Stephen said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    Back on the subject of Chinese people having unusual English names for work, etc reasons.

    Some years ago in my firm’s Singapore office one of the staff had chosen Aloysius from, IIRC, a book but did not know the normal pronunciation.

    So he introduced himself as A-loy-shush.

  38. Peter Erwin said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 4:07 pm

    @ Zeppelin:
    Oh, naming girls for abstract concepts is another one — names like Faith or Hope.

    Hope, Faith, Grace, Joy, etc., are examples of virtue names, which the Puritans were particularly fond of. I remember a friend showing me a list of his ancestors and relatives from 17th Century New England, which included people named Thoughful, Thankful, and Mindwell.

    Puritans in England started the whole trend, of course, and produced people like Praise-God Barebone.

    Some more examples (including the weird alternate tendency to name children after bad things — Humuliation, Anger, Helpless) can be found in this Slate article.

  39. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    CuConnacht: I don’t think I’ve ever seen Elton as a first name, and Clinton, Eliot, Kingsley, Mason, Milton, and Sheridan are rare enough that I’d think of them in the first place as surnames, sometimes associating them as first names with specific people. Also, if someone had Perry as a first name I’d wonder if it was short for Peregrine; and I’m not sure if Percy as a first name is derived from the surname, or was originally short for Percival. The rest, I’d agree, are all perfectly regular and legitimate first names.

  40. richard said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

    In the Christian areas of eastern Indonesia “unusual” names are fairly common. I met a little girl name Jimmy Carter in Ambon around 1997, and a few years later in Sangihe met people named Rencana (“Planned”), Selasa Libur (Tuesday Free), and Giscard D’Estaing Paris France Israel (but everyone called him Koko).

    But there is essentially no system in Indonesia, not just across the country as a whole but even within a given culture area. Some people have long long names that are essentially a list of their ancestors (something like Polynesian ancestor chants, but firmly attached to the individual) while others have only one name, with no family name at all. So you learn to nod and remember and not be too concerned with what you hear.

  41. Rodger C said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 6:48 am

    Stanley Fish once declared, I think, his pride that he’d become a Milton specialist having come from a neighborhood where Milton was only a given name

  42. Rodger C said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    Wulf, meet Eadwacer.

  43. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

    Thorin: Thanks, I hadn’t seen McKinley.

  44. Karen McM said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

    Andrew (not the same one):

    Chester and Grover strike me as rather odd names as well

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Elton as a first name, and Clinton, Eliot, Kingsley, Mason, Milton, and Sheridan are rare enough that I’d think of them in the first place as surnames, sometimes associating them as first names with specific people. Also, if someone had Perry as a first name I’d wonder if it was short for Peregrine; and I’m not sure if Percy as a first name is derived from the surname, or was originally short for Percival. The rest, I’d agree, are all perfectly regular and legitimate first names.

    My father-in-law was named Elton, my grandfather was Chester, I grew up with a Clinton and a Perry (not short for anything) and currently know an Elliott (definitely from a family name), a Mason and a Milton. Only Elliott and Mason are children and possibly part of a current trend.

  45. Kaleberg said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

    It has long been a custom in the American to give a child a family name, usually an old prominent one from the mother’s side. Sometimes it was the primary name, but more frequently as a middle name. It might skip a generation, but the idea was that the relationship would not be lost. (That’s why a lot of the names are androgynous e.g. Hayden.)

  46. Kaleberg said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 10:46 pm

    American blacks have a long tradition of giving honorifics as first names e.g. Duke, King or Earl. The idea is that no white was going to use an honorific and last name with a black; they used first names, even children addressing older people. Having a first name as an honorific meant they might call you something better than “boy” or “girl”. Now a black might be called Mr. or Mrs. as in “Dear Mr. SoAndSo, We are denying you the loan/promotion/whatever” or perhaps “Mr. President”, so there has been a move towards “synthetic” names often with alternate spellings.

    P.S. A business colleague of mine negotiated a deal in Hong Kong back in the early 90s and found that the men all had ordinary English first names like Joseph or Robert, but the women all had traditional, old fashioned sounding English names like Vanessa. Obviously naming customs are still in flux.

  47. Dave Cragin said,

    March 18, 2016 @ 11:15 pm

    For non-Chinese speakers, the following might give additional context as to how some Chinese pick their names:

    1. Chinese names are often based on words one uses in everyday speech. My friend’s Chinese names translated into English include: Snow, Feather, Spring, Laugh. As a result, they are used to having names with meaning (as opposed to Dave, Joe, John, Sally etc).

    When friends in China have asked me to suggest an English name for them, they’ve wanted a name with “a good meaning” and I’ve explained “that’s not how we pick names….”

    2. Sometimes they try to pick an English name that approximates the sound of their name in Chinese. E.g., Last week in Beijing, I met “Tiger Zhu.” His Chinese 1st name is “Taibo,” so Tiger is a reasonable approximation of this sound (and has a good meaning).

    I also met 2 named “Echo”, but I don’t know how they picked their names.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

    When I was at Harvard in the early 70s, I met a doctoral student in Chinese and Japanese folklore named Alsace Yen. His name always amused me.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    Elton John

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