"Farcical names"

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Chinese have long been giving themselves some rather unusual English names.

V. K. Wellington Koo (famous diplomat [1888-1985]), AKA Koo Vi Kyuin, Ku Wei-chün, Gu Weijun

Cream (female author in Hong Kong)

Aplomb (male currently in Buffalo, New York)

IcyFire (female in Taiwan)

Achilles Fang (a teacher of mine)

Apollo Wu (a language learning software developer)

Every year when I go through the hundred plus files of applicants for our graduate program from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, I am tickled by the amazing names that Chinese choose for themselves.

Now an American businessperson wants to help Chinese choose less flamboyant monikers:

US entrepreneur vows to rid China of ‘farcical’ western names

Lindsay Jernigan hopes to liberate young Chinese from bizarre adopted names including Lady Gaga, Twinkle, Pussy, Elvis – and Washing Liquids

I wish Ms. Jernigan well in her new enterprise, but I suspect that many, if not most, Chinese will continue to give themselves extreme names.

A press release for her company may be found here:

There is Finally a Solution for China’s Strangest Cultural Confusion – The English Name

The last paragraph of the press release reads as follows:

They [BestEnglishName.com] feel great about the fact that a few more Chinese people are using English names that he or she can confidently put on a resume or a college application. A name is your first defining word. A name like Mars is strange and confusing to say the least. Finally there is a solution to China’s English name confusion.

Mark Bender, who teaches Chinese folk literature and folklore at Ohio State University, comments:

I will simply note that my son Marston Arwine Bender is nicknamed "Mars" and it has done well for him these last 2 years as a mechanical engineer by day and an acrobat by night (google Marston Bender on YouTube). The only other Marston we know of is Hugh Hefner's son, nearly the same age, though unclear if he responds to "Mars."  btw, we have dated the "Marston" back to the late 16th c. England, once a family name, then a middle name — my son's Marston is the first as a first name — all this, of course, from my mother's side — the Pikes (which include luminaries from the Mass Bay Colony like Robert Pike (wrote argument ending witch burning), the explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike, and the sketchy, overweight Albert Pike (of New England origins, but later fur trapper, mediocre poet, head of the Am Indian troops in Oklahoma in the Confederacy, and a stalwart Mason [VHM:  he was also a Sanskrit scholar]).  Then there's Sumner Pike, who my mother knew when growing up in Eastport/Lubec area of Maine.  The author of the article may also not have heard of the super popular singer Bruno Mars — works well for him, too.  My rant concludes… :0

Brendan O'Kane also has a few things to say about Chinese naming practices:

My all-time favorite English name, as printed on the business card of a man with zhèn 震 ("tremor") in his given name, was "Earth Quack." Generally I tend to take a pretty permissive view of these sorts of things, though — partly because I've seen plenty of foreigners with dumb-sounding Chinese names (e.g. the American actor and TV host Jonathan Kos-Read, who calls himself Cáo Cāo 曹操 and never misses a chance to make a
"shuō dào Cáo Cāo 說到曹操" ("speak of Cao Cao / the devil") joke, or a Brazillian student at Beijing Normal who insisted on being addressed as "Tiānwáng 天王" ("Heavenly King") and have got a less-than-entirely-serious Chinese name myself; partly because at the South Philly primary school I attended there were native English speakers who (through no fault of their own) had names like "Rayonne" and "Velour."

In 2006/7, when I was writing weekly columns in Chinese for the Zhuhai News, I wrote a piece about the irritations of trying to pick a name in Chinese. I still have a copy on my (defunct) Chinese blog, but the page isn't loading at the moment, for some reason. Anyway, the upshot was that I went through a few names before ultimately deciding that I didn't particularly want a Chinese name. I went without one for a few years — when people suggested that I should get a Chinese name, I told them that it would be profoundly unfilial to abandon the name my parents gave me — but eventually it just became too inconvenient not to have one. So I picked my current Chinese name as a minor act of protest: Hé Bì 何毖. [VHM: see below for a detailed explanation of Brendan's Chinese name]

English names would actually be an interesting topic of study. For some people, it's a way of reflecting their identity or personality, and perhaps doing so more accurately than their "real" name — I know of some all-Chinese office environments in which people address each other almost exclusively by their English names. It's also tied very much to fashions: you'd probably see a lot of "Samanthas" among young professional women who were in their early 20s when Sex and the City was airing, and I remember seeing more than a few "Harry Potters" and "Shreks" when I was teaching kids in Harbin in 2002-3. I've also got a sense that Taiwanese people tend to have English names that sound more old-fashioned ("Mabel," "Ethel," "Newton," etc.), but that might just be my imagination.

A note on Brendan's Chinese name

Simple version:  Hé Bì 何毖 (surname "He" + "caution" [not a well-known character]), a pun for hébì 何必 ("why?; what need is there for?; what's the necessity for?; there's no need for / to").

A fuller, more mordant explanation by Brendan himself:

When I'm speaking to people, I'll usually explain it as "chéngqiánbìhòu" de "bì" "懲前毖後" 的 "毖" ("the 'bì 毖' of the saying 'learn from past errors to avoid [i.e., be cautious about] future mistakes'")  — but often that's not enough to bring the character to mind, so a lot of the time I just end up saying "shàngbianr yīgè 'bǐjiào' de 'bǐ', xiàbianr yīgè 'bìxū' de 'bì'" 上邊兒一個 “比較” 的 “比”,下邊兒一個 “必須” 的 “必" ("on top it has the 'bǐ' part of 'bǐjiào' ['compare'], and on the bottom it has the 'bì' part of 'bìxū' ['must']"), which mostly does the trick. (Though it's no guarantee that the person I'm talking to will be able to enter it into a computer system, as I found on several occasions when calling tech support.) I guess something like "mindful" would more or less work as a one-word English gloss, with chéngqiánbìhòu 懲前毖後 then becoming "learning from past [mistakes] to be mindful of future [pitfalls]."

…But really I was just going for the homophone. Hébì 何必 I'd translate in this context as "why do I gotta," as in "hébì yǒu Zhòngwén míngr 何必有中文名兒" ("Why do I gotta have a Chinese name?").

If I wanted to try to keep the pun in English, I might go for something like "care for" / "careful," but I think it's probably not worth the effort.

For those who are interested in how Chinese "spell" a Chinese character when talking (i.e., how to designate which "bì" character out of the 200 or so "bì" characters in the dictionary they have in mind), the above gives a typical example of the procedure.

To conclude, the Chinese wife of one of my friends has the English name "Tess", and I've seen several other Tesses in China too.  If you were a young Chinese girl and had read Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles at an impressionable age and admired the heroine, you could do worse than pick "Tess" for your English name.

[h/t Geoff Wade]


NPR program:  "So Long 'Cinderella,' Website Helps Chinese Find Better English Names" (4/20/15)


  1. cameron said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    A famous gangster in New York's Chinatown in the early 20th century went by the name Mock Duck. Legend has it he wore a chainmail vest, and would blaze away with two pistols with his eyes closed.

  2. Ned Danison said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

    A related phenomenon: When I taught English in Taiwan I encountered more than a few girls naming themselves "Pakky" on paper. It turns out this is the way the name Peggy sounds when pronounced by a native Chinese speaker, with a voiceless "g" and lacking a mid-front lax "eh".

  3. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    It would be utterly fascinating to see what kind of names Americans would choose for themselves if it became a widespread practice here to view your birth name as provisional and pick the alias you'd rather go by when you became an adult.

    I got pretty luck with my Chinese name. I chose the characters I did because they were the simplest ones which sounded close to my high school nickname. But both my Korean and Chinese teachers told me it was a "good name". I've actually had more trouble settling on a surname; I'm on my third one so far and I think I'll stick with this one.

  4. KWillets said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    The English office name thing reminds me of this:

    Kakao Corp. and Daum Communications, which are set to merge in October, said Wednesday all workers and executives will call each other by English names.

    Kakao employees have already used English names regardless of their positions. It is not common here compared to other typical Korean companies where hierarchy still matters.

    Usually, Korean workers call each other by different titles depending on their position and seniority, instead of using names.

    All workers at Kakao call co-CEO Lee Sir-goo by his English first name Vino.


  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

    "They [BestEnglishName.com] feel great about the fact that a few more Chinese people are using English names that he or she can confidently put on a resume or a college application."

    "Singular they" has been around for a long time, so I'm glad to see my first "plural he or she".

  6. Jacob Li said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

    The Chinese text on the "Best English Name" website is so translation-ish that it is hard to understand for native Chinese without a pretty good level of English proficiency… This isn't gonna help her business.

    On the other hand, if Chinese people all do take on non-farcical English names, we are gonna end up with 10 Alex Zhangs in one classroom or company. Perhaps one of the Alexes would use Alexander (or Alexei, Alejandro, Alexandro, Eskandar whatever) to distinguish himself from others, but that'll become a farcical name too.

    Speaking about funny Chinese names, there was one that made a lot of lol in Chinese college students a few years back: http://research.physics.berkeley.edu/zettl/pdf/379.PRL.104-Brar.pdf . Guy must have been tricked by Chinese colleague.

    I, for one, would probably name my son with the most popular given name of the world, should he really need an English name. I guess the name, Mohammad Li, is not only unusual, but also a name that a politically correct Anglophone would criticize as "farcical".

  7. Eric TF Bat said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 7:30 pm

    Daniel von Brighoff: take a look at the Society for Creative Anachronism, a world-wide medieval re-creation/recreation group. Participants are encouraged to choose an "SCA name", a name suitable to the period of roughly 600-1600CE in Europe. Mine is Karl Faustus von Aachen, chosen from late-period German sources in honour of my personal hero, Charlemagne. The Faustus comes from a pun — it was allegedly a common name in German, probably meaning "fist", but I use it to refer to Faustus = Felix = lucky.

    Friends of mine include Crispin Sexi ("the Saxon"), who toyed with alternatives Firmin Dangerous and Urban Freak before choosing his current name. His original, utterly undocumentable name of Taymon of Dashrew was not loved by his then-girlfriend. My wife has the much more sensible 12th century Flemish name Adelindis filia Gotefridi, and our kids are Bridget Wynter (16thC English) and Gocken de Leeu (late-period Dutch, for "the lion", his personal totem animal).

  8. leoboiko said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

    As long as I'm allowed to choose funky Chinese names for myself…

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

    @Daniel —

    Experiments have already been carried out to answer your query. I can vouch for the origin of Loki Skylizard, M.D. as the considered choice of a 9-year-old lad (except for the M.D. part). Check some other good names HERE.

  10. David Morris said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 9:32 pm

    A few years ago I had a Chinese student who gave her English name as 'Koala'. After a few weeks she announced that she was now 'Crystal'. Several times afterwards, I addressed her as 'Crystal' – no response – then 'Koala' – no response – then her real Chinese name – no response. Fortunately then the student sitting next to her gave her a poke.

    Before that, a colleague of mine in Korea said he'd had a student who gave his name as 'K'been'. He'd been calling him that for several weeks before he asked why he'd chosen that name. The student said 'Oh, is famous American name – K'been Cossner'.

  11. Gene Callahan said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

    "All workers at Kakao call co-CEO Lee Sir-goo by his English first name Vino."

    Huh? "Vino" is now an "English" first name? I have never met a single person with that name, and the way I know the word is as Italian for wine.

  12. julie lee said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

    My brother was born in the 1940s and was given the English name "Snowgo" (pronounced Snogo) by my mom. She told us it was name of a darling little boy in a comic strip in Hong Kong's English-language newspaper. Years later I found out that Snowgo was my mom's pronunciation of the name "Sluggo" from the American comics "Lulu", Lulu being a little girl of about 5 and Sluggo her little boyfriend. Later my mom named my daughter "Nunu", her pronunciation of Lulu. Many Chinese people cannot pronounce the "l" sound and instead pronounce it as an "n" sound. My mom, who knew very little English, loved the Lulu and Sluggo comics. I still call my brother Snowgo.

  13. maidhc said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

    Let's not forget Mars Bonfire, the composer of "Born to be Wild".

  14. Rakau said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 2:47 am

    The whole idea of wanting to change one's name to an English one is interesting. Do Chinese who go to France choose French names? What happens with Chinese in Spain? Or Russia? Or elsewhere? I have always wondered about colonial impact on naming. Indigenous North Americans seem to have become Sitting Bull, Dances With Wolves etc and appear to have given up their indigenous language names (in public at least). Place names appear to have been translated into English as well (Little Big Horn – I am guessing here). Here in polynesia we have avoided most of that. We don't anglicize our indigenous/ancestral names. Very many of us (Maori) in Aotearoa New Zealand use our indigenous names in public and private life and insist that the names be pronounced correctly. Similarly with place names, there are a very large number of indigenous names still in use with their correct spelling and pronunciation. Not without a continuing battle though. And we are only 15% of the population with 2% of the total population being speakers of Te Reo Maori. The English seem to be monocultural and monolingual and the English colonial experience reflects this. English as a language has colonised the commercial world. That may have a lot to do with the desire to have an English name, and conversely the desire not to, is a kick back against neo colonialism

  15. DanV said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 4:01 am

    I keep of list of unusual names I see in Taiwan:

  16. maidhc said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 4:30 am

    Rakau: The US and Canada have many placenames of indigenous origin, including the names of states, provinces and large cities (Chicago, Ottawa, Toronto, Seattle, Miami, to name a few).

    For speakers of a tonal language living among speakers of a non-tonal language, I can see that it could be quite irritating to have one's name constantly mispronounced with no hope of ever getting them to say it right. (I say this from the perspective of someone living in a place whose inhabitants invariably mispronounce my name, except that I have elected to go by a different name.) How much easier to say "Oh, just call me Bill". Some Chinese people go by their Chinese name in the English-speaking world, but they have to be prepared to hear it constantly mangled.

    I know quite a few people of Vietnamese origin, and I've come to know, for example, that the Vietnamese personal name Vu, as pronounced by most Americans, comes out as the word for a woman's breast. I have tried to learn how to pronounce Vietnamese words properly, but despite making a sincere effort (given the amount of time I have to devote to the project), I have had to admit defeat when confronted with the creaky rising tone and other such features.

    Perhaps someone who is more familiar with Chinese culture can weigh in on this, but it's my understanding that Chinese have a more flexible concept of names, and it's common to change one's name when changing one's life circumstances, or to use different names in different contexts. (Similarly my close relatives call me by a different name than everyone else who knows me.)

    In reference to your point about British colonialism and placenames, you might be interested in Brian Friel's play "Translations" about language issues in 19th century Ireland.

  17. maidhc said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 4:52 am


    Elfin is a name that has had some use, although it's not common.
    Doggie comes from a TV show, I think.
    Ham is plausible (e.g., short for Hamilton)
    Poky is a character in children's TV?
    Waiting, I think most people would take it as Chinese, Wai Ting
    Garden, it could be a name that hippies gave their child
    Stitch, I think it's another TV character
    Pluto, I want that name. I would go for maybe Pluto Shah. Very distinguished.

    For the last few decades Americans have been giving their children a very diverse selection of names, so I think no one is going to bat an eye when people show up named just about anything. But I have noticed that Chinese people, when selecting an English name, sometimes don't realize the nuances. For example, some women's names are considered "stripper names" (e.g., Tawny or Stormy). It's hard to pick up nuances like this in a second language. But usually they catch on and make adjustments.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 5:12 am

    Many Chinese people cannot pronounce the "l" sound and instead pronounce it as an "n" sound.

    The Cantonese-speaking people I've known show free variation — when I had a tutor (for Mandarin) from Guangzhou, she often pronounced, for example, 能 as 'leng'. And someone I asked how to read 加拿大 in Cantonese came out with what sounded to me like 'ga la da'. Is it really the case in Hong Kong that people can't pronounce an L?

    My personal list of funny or otherwise remarkable "English names" chosen by Chinese students:

    – Vinky
    – Doleen
    – Mashell
    – Yellow
    – Cavey (to be fair, his actual name was 凯伟 kaiwei, so this wasn't really supposed to be an English name)
    – Shady
    – Cynthia (a completely conventional English name, but not a great choice for a chinese person unable to pronounce the "th" — it took me a long time to understand what she was trying to tell me her name was)
    – Yuki
    – Yumi
    – Lolita

    Most of these were students at a school that sent them to the US for senior year; Lolita was the only one who was "strongly advised" to choose a different name before going. Her new English name was Eiko.

  19. Matthew McIrvin said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 6:08 am

    @julie lee: That's wonderful!

    Unless the names were changed elsewhere, those are actually two different comic strips: Sluggo was Nancy's friend; Little Lulu's was named Tubby. (They were very similar in spirit, though.)

  20. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 7:41 am

    More on Apollo Wu's name (from his daughter Linda):

    "His Chinese name is 吴文超 … I think it used to be Man-chiu but I’m pretty sure the last decades, he has used Wenchao. However, in Cantonese, his name is pronounced ‘Ng Mun Chiu’"

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 8:17 am

    @Michael Watts

    Chinese Japanophilia

    I'm really interested in the fact that several of the names on your list actually come from Japanese. How is it that these individuals of Chinese descent are taking Japanese names? Considering the strong anti-Japanese rhetoric in the PRC media (often citing government pronouncements), this seems odd. On the other hand, in recent years I've noticed an amazing amount of Japanophilia on the part of young students and visiting scholars from the mainland (ranging in age from their late teens to their thirties). In some cases, when I ask them how they became so attracted to Japan and things Japanese, they confess that it goes all the way back to middle school or even elementary school, and that they just "picked it up". Their attraction to Japanese culture ranges from Hello Kitty to anime and manga, clothing and hair styles, music, food, games and role playing, film, and so on. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed by how much these young Chinese seem to love everything Japanese.

    What really impresses me is how many of them, against great odds (few resources and no encouragement in an English-mad academic setting) learn Japanese, and become quite good at it. When I ask them how they accomplished this, they tell me that they mainly taught themselves with whatever instructional materials they could get their hands on, but often mainly through direct exposure to the manifestations of Japanese culture that they so admire. And they seem to really enjoy speaking and reading Japanese, and smile warmly whenever I mention it to them individually or in class. They don't evince the least bit of embarrassment or discomfiture about their attraction to Japan and Japanese culture.

    Currently, at Penn we have a visiting associate professor from the Chinese department of a major university in China. He speaks very good English. So far as I know, he received all of his primary, secondary, and higher education in China. His Chinese given name is Jiāníng 家宁 (lit., "home peaceful / tranquil"), but he always introduces himself using the Japanese pronunciation of "Kanei", and everybody around here calls him "Kanei". Indeed, it would seem strange and forced to refer to him as "Jianing". In our community, he is "Kanei", and is he is pleased by that. When Kanei first started coming to my classes, he would always exude pride when I talked about his name or his attraction to Japan and things Japanese.

    Most amazing of all is that, with Kanei and all of the other young Chinese Japanophiles I've been encountering in recent years, they don't think there's anything wrong about liking Japan, that it's natural, and that it's healthy.

    ADDENDUM: The Japanophilia described above is an entirely separate phenomenon from the mad rush of Chinese consumers to buy all sorts of Japanese goods and products, from electric appliances to fancy toilet seats.

  22. gaoxiaen said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    @Dan V

  23. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 9:57 am

    @Dan Lufkin

    "Loki Skylizard" reminds me of similar experiments recently conducted in my sister's own household when she announced her pregnancy to her sons. Asked to suggest a name, the older two settled on "NinjaKick Awesome" [can't vouch 100% for the capitalisation and spelling there] and the 8 year-old wanted "Sugarlips".

    She went with "James".

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    Herschel Bernardi used to do a routine about Jews changing their names after emigrating to the U.S. One of them was "C. D. Mott." He explains to a friend from the old country that he got the surname from a street sign. His friend asks, "Why C.D.?" and he replies, "Corner Delancey."

  25. julie lee said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

    @Matthew McIrvin,

    You're right Matthew!! I got two comic strips mixed up. The first one had Sluggo and Nancy. After my brother Snowgo, another baby came along, and my mom named her Nancy–my sister Nancy. Then years later when my daughter came along, my mom named her Nunu after Little Lulu, another comic strip with a little girl.
    Thanks for the correction, Mathew !!

  26. julie lee said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

    @Brendan O'Kane (quoted above in Victor Mair's post ):

    In my time the (mostly Cantonese) girls in my school in Hong Kong had older names such as Mabel, Ethel, Jeannette, Doreen, etc.
    Except the Cantonese girls often had trouble with the final "l" and said "Mabo" and Etho" instead of Mabel and Ethel.

    You can tell if a Chinese person is a Mandarin speaker or Cantonese speaker by her English pronunciation.

    Many Cantonese people will pronounce the English name "Bill" as "Bee-oh" while many Beijing-Mandarin speakers will pronounce "Bill" as "Beer" because "-er" is a common ending for speakers of Mandarin in Beijing and Northern China.
    So for English "jail", the Cantonese will say "jai-oh", while the Beijing Mandarin speaker will say "dry-er". (There is no "jai" sound in Mandarin; the closest is a syllable similar to English "dry".)

    I find English "in" is a useful clue to where the Chinese speaker comes from. A friend from Hunan pronounces English "in" as "ying". So:
    "I live ying New York."
    "She went yingto (into) town yesterday."
    "Yingdiana Jones."

    A person native to Beijing will likely say:
    "I live yin New York."
    "She went yinto (into) town yesterday."
    "Yindiana Jones."

    That's because many Chinese words ending in "-in" in Beijing or Northern Mandarin are pronounced with "-ing" endings in Hunan/Hubei/Sichuan.

  27. julie lee said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

    @ Michael Watts:

    "Is it really the case in Hong Kong that people can't pronounce an L?"

    No, I should have explained above. My mother was not a native of Hong Kong, not a native Cantonese speaker. She was in Hong Kong in the early 1940s as a refugee from Shanghai, and in Shanghai had been a refugee from Beijing, and in Beijing had been a refugee from Hubei. In Shanghai and Beijing it was the Japanese bombing. In Hubei it was the local bandits, often Communists.

    The Cantonese have no trouble with initial l-, but people from Hunan/Hubei/Sichuan often have trouble with initial l-.

  28. Chas Belov said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    I don't see what's farcical about Achilles, Apollo, Elvis, or Lolita; unusual, yes, but these are perfectly legitimate English names. As for my Chinese name, 白力漢, it's a direct translation of my English one (with 漢 the more refined stand-in for 男). A Chinese immigrant friend who wanted to keep a Chinese name wound up replacing it with the least mangle-able version he could bear, including replacing a word that would be unfortunately pronounced in English as having an unpleasant association. Another Chinese immigrant friend, who majored in French before coming here, took a French given name.

  29. Eric S Henry said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    In case there is interest, I published an article on the pragmatics of Chinese English names and name use in the journal Anthropologica. One thing I noticed was that while beginners chose common names, most of the more unusual English names were actually used by people relatively fluent in the language. They described their choices as unique or special or suited to their personalities. I think as people become more familiar with the language they became less afraid of breaking the "rules" of naming.

    Henry, Eric S. 2012. When Dragon Met Jasmine: Domesticating English Names in Chinese Social Interaction. Anthropologica 54(1):107-117.


  30. Jim Breen said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

    Victor's lengthy comment on Chinese Japanophilia is very interesting. I have encountered many Chinese people in Japan, partly because I lived in a part of Tokyo where the Chinese population is quite high (~10%). They tended to stand out because their English was usually much better than that of the locals.

    The 家宁/Kanei anecodote is fascinating. It is virtually unknown as a name in Japan, partly because the 宁 kanji is very rare. 宁 didn't make it into the main JIS standard (JIS X 0208), only appearing later in the supplementary JIS X 0212. "Ei" is not one of its regular readings, but it is recognized as a name-only (名乗り) reading.

  31. Bob said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

    Many years ago, when I was living in Guam, I knew a Chinese fellow named Endymion Wong.

  32. Michael Watts said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    Chas Belov:

    Lolita is an unacceptable name in the US owing to its use in pornography. I really wouldn't recommend anyone use it for themselves.

    Victor Mair:

    I have no explanation other than generic Japanophilia for Yuki and Yumi, but Eiko has an interesting story behind it, and is at root unrelated to Japanophilia. Her parents, one Mr. 吕 and Ms. 郎, gave their daughter the "hyphenated surname" 吕郎, as well as what is as far as I know a fairly normal Chinese girls' personal name, 英子. (Technical note: the government apparently wouldn't accept this innovative double surname, so for official purposes her name was 郎英子 with surname 吕. But in spirit it was a double surname with a normal personal name.)

    This distinctive four-character name, with the personal name ending in 子, leads chinese people to believe that 吕郎英子 is Japanese. She was apparently much mocked and bullied in elementary school for "being Japanese", and when she had to stop using Lolita as an English name she just went with it and chose a Japanese reading of 英子, Eiko.

  33. Michael Watts said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

    Chas Belov:

    Actually, now I'm very curious about your English name. It can't really be "White Strongman", can it?

  34. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

    @Michael Watts

    That's an amazing story about how Eiko got her "Japanese" name. Thanks for telling us all the details.

    I'm surprised the government, after outlawing the innovative disyllabic surname 吕郎, allowed her to (pretend to) have a trisyllabic given name 郎英子. I've known a few Chinese with unusual hyphenated surnames, but can't recall any with officially recognized trisyllabic given names.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 12:00 am

    Michael Watts: In college in the early '80s I slightly knew a woman named Lolita. I never heard anyone say there was anything wrong or laughable about her name, though of course I might not have even if people did say such things, and I don't know what she might have had to put up with before that.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 12:42 am


    One of the world's greatest living Sinologists is Endymion Wilkinson. His name always makes me think of Keats.

    I'm not sure, but I have a suspicion that Endymion would seem less fanciful in Britain than in America. I've never met or heard of an American named Endymion.

  37. Michael Rank said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 5:07 am

    Believe me, Endymion is as fanciful in UK as in America!

  38. Dave Cragin said,

    April 5, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    Another interesting difference is how Americans and Chinese view names. For those non-Chinese speakers, Chinese names are words with meaning.

    At a dinner with Chinese friends in Beijing, one wanted an English name, so they asked me for one with a “good meaning.” I explained we generally don't think of names as having meanings. They are just names. Their English was somewhat limited, as was my Chinese, so it was a challenge to discuss.

    Another fascinating part of given (1st) names in China is the difference in usage depending on whether they are 1 or 2 syllables. If it is just a 1 syllable name, generally only close family members will use it and everyone else will call them by their last (family) name + given name. A one syllable name is seen as too intimate for general use. If a friend hadn’t explained this to me, it would have taken me much time to realize this.

    (I agree with Matthew McIrvin, Julie Lee’s posts about her personal & family experiences offer much.)

  39. Michael Watts said,

    April 6, 2015 @ 1:08 am

    It's not exactly unknown for English names to be "words with meaning", and if you're counting etymology virtually all of them are. (There's plenty of demand for this — look at behindthename.com.)

    Here are some entries from the top 100 US female names as of may 2014 (according to http://baby-names.familyeducation.com/popular-names/girls/ ):


    Here are a few more where the meaning isn't exactly obscure:


    Tons and tons and tons of people who speak only english are interested in the "meaning" of their name, and of other people's names. When a chinese girl asked me if there was an English name with the meaning 清澈 ("clear"), I didn't say "oh, we don't think names have meaning" — that isn't true. I said the closest common English name was Claire.

  40. julie lee said,

    April 6, 2015 @ 3:01 am

    Dave Cragin,
    Thanks for your gracious remark about my comments.

    @Michael Watts,

    Good gracious, "London" a female name !! In the 1950s-60s there was an American model in the pages of Vogue magazine whose name was China–China Machado. (She looked a blend of Asian and Hispanic.)

  41. Michael Watts said,

    April 6, 2015 @ 3:09 am

    "London" doesn't seem any weirder to me than Sydney, Brooklyn, Ireland, or Erin. (At least, the city is my major association with the name Sydney.)

  42. Frank L Chance said,

    April 6, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

    I may be an unusual example of an Anglo with two meaningful names in both English and Japanese. Both "frank" (meaning honest or direct) and "chance" (meaning an opportunity) have been imported into Japanese as フランク and チャンス respectively. If only my parents had given me a middle name like "slim" instead of Lewis I would be a perfect pun.

  43. Eidolon said,

    April 6, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

    re: Chinese Japanophilia

    In the 90s, Japanese pop culture was imported en masse into the PRC in the form of television shows, music, movies, books, and consumer products. This was before the general restrictions issued by the PRC government on such imports in the 00s and 10s. There is a large segment of PRC young adults today who grew up on this "Japanese Wave," and who help perpetuate it. That said, I think the "Korean Wave" is replacing it today due to both official restrictions on Japanese cultural imports and because Japanese pop culture is itself falling out of fashion.

    As to why this culture was able to establish itself despite historical enmity, it's necessary to keep in mind that:

    * In the 90s, Sino-Japanese relations were not necessarily as bad as they are today.

    * Japan was/is not simply viewed as a historical enemy by the Chinese but also as an advanced, modern nation that is able to serve as a role model for modernization.

    * People don't necessarily connect resentment towards the government with resenment towards the culture.

    The last two observations are of the greatest importance, in my opinion, as it is also operative with American culture. There are a lot of countries around the world who have no love for the US, to say the minimum, but where American culture is nonetheless highly influential and popular. A great example is Russia.

  44. Chas Belov said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 1:32 am

    @Michael Watts: My experience is similar to Jerry Friedman's. I personally know someone named Lolita and I've never heard any untoward comments about her name. While it's true that "Lolita" has acquired a secondary meaning in English due to the Nabokov novel, it was a legitimate name at the time and I don't see anything wrong with it continuing to be a legitimate name.

    As for my name's meaning, my "English" given name is Charles (which is from French and means strong or manly), while "Belov" is Russian for white. So very easy to translate into Chinese. For Japanese, I had to add a geographic part, so I chose City (white city), but alas, I forget the character due to lack of use. I'm told that if I directly translate my Chinese name into Korean that it sounds like a Chinese name that's been rendered in Korean. Oh well.

  45. George said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 5:42 am

    To follow up on the exchange above between Dave Cragin and Michael Watts, it isn't so much that 'English' names don't have meanings; it's more that many names don't have apparent meanings unless you actually look for them. This is particularly the case with the more traditional saints' names and, for that reason, is more marked in a predominantly Catholic country like Ireland than in, say, England, where there a lot of girls' names traditionally refer to flowers/plants. Until relatively recently, a name like Heather would have been a 'Protestant' name in Ireland, although this is less the case today.

    To my ear at least, names like Ireland or Erin still sound terribly American. However, the use of Irish place names as given names (Tyrone, Shannon, Kerry, etc.), while once a peccadillo of our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, is no longer unknown in Ireland itself, along with abominations like pronouncing Caitlin as Kate-Lynn!

  46. enkiv2 said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    I'm unsure how much of the 'farcical' nature of the names in question is related to unfamiliarity with cultural norms and how much of it is related to being given the freedom to choose your own name. A parent, when naming their child, has a good reason to choose a very conservative name — children can be quite cruel about such things. However, adults tend to avoid being explicitly cruel to people with unusual names — it's not socially acceptable — and so adults and older children, when given the opportunity to choose a name for themselves, can feel free to be creative and choose something interesting and remarkable (much as how adults and older children choose interesting and remarkable internet handles).

    This is not to say that there isn't a reason to avoid unusual names in the context of employment — people with unusual names have lower interview rates, something that may have to do with latent racism or (more generally) in-group/out-group separation.

  47. julie lee said,

    April 7, 2015 @ 1:11 pm

    So much of naming a child (and giving onself a name) involves taste and sensibility. In China, it was often an opportunity for wit and whimsy. Many of the cultured people disdained overtly feminine names for their own daughters, feeling that such things as flowers and fragrances were too often the names of slave-girls. Flowers and fragrances as names for girls were often considered common and lower-class. These parents strove for something higher for their infant girls, often something masculine-sounding, or at least gender-neutral My own mother was given a boy's name, and since she was the only child, she was also honored as a boy. Her nephews and nieces called her "uncle", not "auntie". But later my father gave her another, poetic but gender-unspecific, name.

    Wit and whimsy of course can still be seen in naming. The celebrity rapper Kanye West named his first child, a girl, North, North West, which I find charming. I also like very much the name Saffron Burrowes (the name of a beautiful English actress, seen in "Enigma", a movie about breaking the WWII German code).

  48. Dave Cragin said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

    The point I was making about Chinese & English names is the thinking process behind how they are given.

    As Michael Watts noted, English names have meanings.

    The question is how many parents named their daughter because she reminds them of “a flat, treeless grassland of tropical or subtropical regions” (i.e., Savanna” ) or because they want people to associate this meaning with their daughter?

    Obviously they don’t. They know Savanna has a meaning, but I’d expect virtually all pick it because it sounds nice.

    Similarly, my daughter’s name is that of a low growing shrub, but the meaning of the name is nothing we associate with her (it was just a name my wife liked). (it makes me laugh to think of her name as a low growing shrub)

    I agree with Michael that English speakers often want to know the meanings of their names and those of others – but that's also the point. How many people know the meaning of a common name like "Michael" or "Robert" or "Sally"? (few) Odds are most were named after a beloved family member or friend or their parents just liked the name.

    In contrast, the meanings of Chinese names are generally obvious to everyone because they are typically words from everyday life. They don't need to go to website or dictionaries to determine the meanings of their names.

  49. Jo-Anne Andre said,

    April 11, 2015 @ 12:46 am

    A male Chinese cashier in Calgary has the name "Adrift" on his name tag.

  50. James Tierney said,

    April 15, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    Our language program had a student named Wei Bin who wanted to use "Weapon" as a first name, a name he chose both for its phonological similarity with his first name and a way of expressing his assertive personality. In the end, my colleague offered "Lance" as an alternative, which he happily accepted.

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