The curling Kims

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One of the sensations of the just concluded Olympics in PyeongChang is that South Korea's Olympic women's curling team won the silver medal.

From the press conference after the final match, as tweeted by Jonathan Cheng (WSJ Seoul Bureau Chief):

Skip Yogurt laments her Korean name 김은정 Kim Eun-jung. That middle character "eun" 銀 is a homonym for silver. She muses on whether she should've changed it to "geum" 金, for gold.

If you weren't following the curling, Cheng calls her "Skip Yogurt" because she's the "skip" of the team (like a captain), and her nickname is Annie because she likes Annie's Yogurt.  According to coach Kim, team Kim members chose their own nicknames while eating breakfast, and they decided to go by the breakfast food they like, i.e., pancakes for Young-mi, steak for Kyung-ae, Annie('s yogurt) for Eun-jung, and so forth.

Someone asked:

But wait… isn't 金 (albeit pronounced differently) literally all of their last names?

Cheng responded:

Yes, the team's five members, its coach and its backers are all Kims, which is indeed 金. Not enough for the gold medal today, though, apparently.

I might add that Korean people usually do not associate the last name 金 with gold as it is pronounced as Kim (gim). 金 in the first name will be pronounced the same as gold 金 (geum).

And then there's lead sweeper Kim Young-mi, whose name has become newly popular (see below). She was asked about her name at the press conference, as Cheng reports:

Kim Young-mi, asked about how she felt that her name was now one of the best known in S. Korea: I used to hate my name so much, because it was so old-fashioned, that I wanted to change it. Not any more!

Young-mi is considered to be an old-fashioned name because it was popular in 60s and 70s. Funny enough, Eun-jung Kim (skip)'s mother's name is also Kim, Young-mi!

I had thought that "Young-mi" might be considered old-fashioned because of its meaning, but I was soon disabused of that notion.  Here's how several respondents put the matter:

1.

You can’t really guess what character is used for each sound. It could be anything. There are some common characters used for names, but they may not necessarily be true for your name. Unless explicitly asked or you need to register your name in the govt office (something like a birth certificate), you will not talk about the underlying Chinese character in your name. Also, you may actually not have any because your name is a “hangul name” which is totally possible and becoming more common these days.

Especially the younger generation or people who didn't have extensive exposure to hanja will not think of the underlying characters….

2.

Although parents choose Chinese characters carefully for their baby's name, I would say we do not pay much attention to the meaning of Hanja when we pronounce Korean first names. Also, often times we cannot tell which Hanja character is used in the name as some Hanja characters share the same spelling and pronunciation.

3.

People generally think that "Youngmi" is an old-fashioned name, something that would be more common in our parent's generation. Nowadays, I hear a lot of Korean people use names that sound pretty for their children instead of considering the hanja meaning. As a result, when they apply for a birth certificate, a lot of the hanja portions are made up (so there may be some Chinese characters but they don't have a particular meaning).

4.

It is just a name that was popular a few decades ago maybe in the 1970s.  Like all countries, there are more popular and trendy names for babies every year – there are tons of websites for top baby names in the US every year – and Youngmi is an older sounding name. There is nothing especially insightful or special/different about the name Youngmi in terms of its meaning.

Linguistically, at least to me, more interesting than the lack of any particular meaning with the name "Young-mi" is the way it is put to use in action.

"Yelling 'Young-mi! Young-mi!,' as skip 'Annie' Kim yells at the lead sweeper, with varying levels of urgency, has become a national chant of support for the team. (Washington Post)

From a respondent:

Youngmi has become one of the hallmarks of the Olympics this year, especially because people were so surprised that Korea could do so well in curling. I do not think people really associate Youngmi with hanja, but they do generally think it is odd for the curling athletes to have used "Youngmi" instead of other curling terms. In fact, a lot of people thought that "Youngmi" became an official curling term for South Korea. Kim Eun-jung used the name "Youngmi" in different ways to refer to certain curling techniques –- for example, "Youngmi~" meant to start sweeping, "Youngmi-ya~" meant to stop sweeping and wait, "Youngmi-ya!!!" meant to go faster, and "Youngmi Youngmi Youngmi~" meant that there was no need to sweep anymore

Team Kim are referred to in the local news media as "Garlic Girls" for their pluck and because of their origins in a garlic-growing region.

Another tidbit from Jonathan Cheng's Twitter feed:

To cash in on Garlic Girls glory, one S. Korean airline is giving away free round-trip plane tickets to anyone named Young-mi.

Linking to The Korean Times.

Finally, I can't help but get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I watch videos like this one, especially because I'm a fan of raw garlic:

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer, Haewon Cho, Krista Ryu, and Shelley Shim]



14 Comments

  1. arthur waldron said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    Gallup show SK popularity after olympics 77% NK 9% ANW

  2. Ricky said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    Probably "her nickname is Annie because she like's Annie's Yogurt" shouldn't have the apostrophe in the word "like's"? [vhm: fixed]

  3. David L said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

    Tangentially related: there was an LPGA golfer (she's no longer active) who decided to call herself Birdie Kim to stand out from all the other golfing Kims.

  4. 번하드 said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

    Ah, yes… That curling thing touched me for very personal reasons.
    The district these young ladies come from is a small, beautiful, rural area that is heavily affected by demographic change, even for Korean standards.
    38% of the population are 65 or older, between 2009 and 2017 population numbers declined by 12%.
    And I wouldn't have started learning Korean, then found LLOG if it hadn't been for that place.
    But that's a different story.

    The garlic is indeed scarily good, it can be so hot that you think that your gums are bleeding profusely:)

    Returning to somewhat language-oriented matters, Kim Eun-jeong also became famous for the wide range of emotional states she can express with her face.

  5. KWillets said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

    It's also common to have homophonic names; our daughter's Korean name was chosen to have the same initial syllable as her grandmother's, but the Hanja are completely different. People also give siblings similar-sounding names, eg Young-mi and Young-ja. These priorities tend to override adherence to particular Hanja.

    As to old-fashioned names vs. more sophisticated ones, it's a common drama trope to have characters comment on countrified first names, and celebrities' stage names also evidence the distinction. The film Ode To My Father contains a minor character bearing the decidedly rural-sounding name of Kim Bong-nam; it's a cameo of the late designer (and family friend) Andre Kim in his younger days.

  6. David Morris said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

    I have one general and one specific question. I don't speak Korean well enough to ask and none of the Koreans I know speak English well enough to answer.

    1) Given that the same hangeul spelling can represent different hanja, are Kim Yeongmi (金英美) and Kim Yeongmi (金榮美) "the same name" because the hangeul spellings are the same, or are they "different names" because the hanja are different? Do two Kim Yeongmis say "We have the same name!" or "We have the same name! What's your hanja? Oh, we have different names!"? Wikipedia reports that there are 34 hanja for yeong and 33 for mi, so there are potentially 1,122 different combinations, making it very unlikely that you'll ever meet someone with the same combination. However, the two I've used above are given as examples and are presumably common.

    2) Are the members of the curling team related? Two of them are sisters, but what about the rest? There is a Uiseong Kim clan, but not all Kims living in Uiseong are of that clan. They are not *necessarily* related, but are they *in fact* related? I guess that if they were, the news reports would say so.

    When I taught a high school in Korea, the students sat in alphabetical order, so all the Kims sat together – actually, all the boy Kims sat together and the girl Kims sat together, so as well as there being more Kims than anyone else, all the Kims spend most of their day together, at least at that school then.

  7. 번하드 said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    One more re: given names. I was told that some families/clans have longstanding rules.
    A long time ago, they decided upon a set of five hanja H_1..H_5.
    The children from the first generation would all have names with H_1 as the *first* syllable.
    Their children would all have names with H_2 as the *second* syllable.
    Then H_3 as first syllable and so on until things repeat in the 10th generation.
    That leaves one syllable for free choice and (sometimes quite fuzzy) hinting at gender.
    I've seen a few families that still seem to adhere to such a convention, but I don't know how widespread that kind of convention still is.

    Kim Young-mi seems to be 꽃 영(榮), 아름다울 미(美) (flower,beautiful).
    It is reported that she had wanted to change that name (chosen by her grandfather), but that now she is proud of it and plans to keep it:)

    I couldn't find a mention of Kim Eun-jeong's name in hanja.
    In hangeul, the Eun and Jeong are the same as the Jong and Un in NK's 김정은(金正恩) Kim Jongun.
    (North Korea mostly seems to use McCune-Reischauer romanization)
    The Kims are of course identical, but if her Eun is silver that would look like http://hanja.naver.com/hanja?q=%E9%8A%80&cp_code=0&sound_id=0 not like his http://hanja.naver.com/hanja?q=%E6%81%A9&cp_code=0&sound_id=0

    More garlic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfpjSwKSVKA

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

    Every time I watch that video, tears come to my eyes, and it's not because of raw garlic.

  9. jick said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    > As a result, when they apply for a birth certificate, a lot of the hanja portions are made up …

    That gave me a chuckle. I think I understand what the sentence is trying to say, but when you think about it, *all* names are made up!

  10. Michael Watts said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 3:53 am

    <blockquote.Skip Yogurt laments her Korean name 김은정 Kim Eun-jung. That middle character "eun" 銀 is a homonym for silver.

    It's really hard not to interpret this as saying that her name is actually 銀 (in relevant part). But that's not just a homonym for silver, it is silver.

    How did 金 kim diverge from 金 geum? Is it just a coincidence? They're close enough that when I saw 'She muses on whether she should've changed it to "geum" 金, for gold.', I assumed kim must just be a different romanization of the same word.

  11. 번하드 said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 5:31 pm

    @David Morris:

    1) Now that's an interesting question!
    2) Judging from a few newspaper reports, you seem to be right.
    Kim Yeongmi discovered curling because there was no other exciting thing to do
    after school. Then she pulled in her classmate Eunjeong. (That part is in reverse in some reports)
    One day, Yeongmi had forgotten something at home and asked her younger sister
    Gyeongae to bring it along. When she arrived, she just grabbed a broom and started.
    Back in class, Gyeongae wrote "Wanted: a person for curling" on the blackboard
    and that's how her classmate Seonyeong was pulled in.

    Eunjeong Yeongmi Gyeongae Seonyeong

    The fifth one of the Kims seems not related to the other four.

    On the ice, they were noticed for using dialect, and for one-syllable team-specific commands 헐 (hurry, sweep!) 업 (up, lift broom) 얍 (begin sweeping) 워 (stop sweeping)
    One reason for their surprising popularity is that all of them come from poor families,
    and yes, when Eunjeong was not in training she would help on her fathers garlic farm.

    @Michael Watts:

    > assumed kim must just be a different romanization of the same word

    Well, it's even a different hangeulization if there is such a word:)
    http://hanja.naver.com/hanja?q=%E9%87%91

    There are a few but not many such cases of one hanja having more than one hangeul
    syllable alternatives, e.g. the one for tea http://hanja.naver.com/hanja?q=%EF%A7%BE can be 차 or 다. This peculiarity even affects Unicode where it led to having two different code points for the same glyph.

  12. 번하드 said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    Oh, the "diagram" arrows were eaten.

    Eunjeong Yeongmi Gyeongae Seonyeong
    classmate sister classmate

  13. Eidolon said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 7:53 pm

    "One more re: given names. I was told that some families/clans have longstanding rules.
    A long time ago, they decided upon a set of five hanja H_1..H_5.
    The children from the first generation would all have names with H_1 as the *first* syllable.
    Their children would all have names with H_2 as the *second* syllable.
    Then H_3 as first syllable and so on until things repeat in the 10th generation.
    That leaves one syllable for free choice and (sometimes quite fuzzy) hinting at gender.
    I've seen a few families that still seem to adhere to such a convention, but I don't know how widespread that kind of convention still is."

    This is the well-studied practice of giving generation names, popular in certain East Asian cultures. The following article discusses it in the context of China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_name, but the idea should be fairly similar in historical Korea. In historical practice, it is the character that is shared, not just the sound, and families will have a rotating sequence of characters with which to name each subsequent generation. The sequence of characters often forms a loose poem, and might even be granted by rulers as a reward. But with modern Korea moving away from hanja, it's entirely possible that in many cases, the character itself no longer bears any meaning, and so the tradition is continued only in a phonetic sense.

    It gets a bit more complicated when the first name is only a single character or syllable. It is my understanding that single syllable personal names are generally avoided in Korea, but it is common in China. In such cases, people have come up with the strategy of using the generation character as a particle. For example, 芥 and 芦 share the same grass radical 艹, and so would qualify as generation names for a generation whose character is supposed to be grass.

  14. 번하드 said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 9:09 pm

    @Eidolon:

    Oh, thank you for that pointer, will be reading that wikip article after breakfast.
    There is at least one family name in Korea that has two syllables, I once met
    a person with such a name 남궁 (南宮/Namgung) and she told me that, indeed, in her family the given names only have one syllable.
    In the top 100 family name list at http://birds-of-korea.tistory.com/658 it is rank #93.

    Columns are labeled 2*(rank,name,#households,#persons),change in rank, comparing
    data from 2000 and 1985.

    Family names are a bit of an oversimplification, because if you dig deeper,
    each family name's bearers will fall apart (by original location) into many many clans, like David Morris mentioned above. Not that it would matter in everyday life, AFAIK.

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