English names in East Asia

« previous post | next post »

We have had thousands of students from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore enrolled as undergraduates and graduate students at Penn.  To name just a few at random, there are Andromeda, Tess, Sophie, Isis (but she changed it to Iset after finding out about the Islamic terrorist state), Leander, Lovesky, and so on.  I won't speculate on why they choose the names they do (and, of course, there are plenty of students named David, Peter, Henry, Susan, Nancy, Jane, and even an occasional Carlos, etc.), but the fact remains that almost every student from the Sinosphere who applies to Penn has an English name of one sort or another.  Many of them, prodded by their American teachers or friends, give up these foreign names after a while, or they use their Chinese names and English names in different circumstances.

The same is true for Korea, and it seems to an even greater degree, such that in some circles in Korea, having an English name is obligatory:

"Why Korean companies are forcing their workers to go by English names" (WP, 5/12/17)

Basically, it is a way to circumvent, and partially to break down, the hierarchical structuring that is inherent in conventional Korean naming practices.

The norm in South Korea is to call your colleagues or superiors not by their given names but by their positions. It’s the same for addressing your older friends or siblings, your teacher or any person on the street. So if your family name is Johnson and you were to be hired in a Korean company as a manager, your co-workers would call you “Johnson-boojang.” To get the attention of your older female friend, you would call for “eunni,” or “older sister.”

This is a language where verb conjugations are based not on I, they, we and so on, but on formality levels. “The younger person must use honorific to the older person,” Hwang said. “If not, that makes a lot of conflict.”

One popular Korean blog was more explicit on shirking honorifics in the workplace: “Dropping your pants and [urinating] in the person’s briefcase would be only a little ruder than calling him/her by his/her first name.”

The idea is that, by requiring employees to adopt English names, companies can eliminate some of the hierarchical thinking that is built into Korean naming habits.  By so doing, Korean employers hope to tap into " a different cultural mind-set".

But naming habits are part and parcel of an entire galaxy of social relationships and behaviors.  As such, they cannot be easily changed without damaging the integrity of an entire culture.

Back in the early 80s, I remember one of my Japanese graduate students telling me that the hardest thing about going back to Japan for visits was the necessity to use honorific language and gestures.  She said that she felt very uncomfortable relating to people that way after having grown accustomed to more relaxed American social mores.

I will never forget an event that happened during an extended family outing in Taiwan half a century ago.  My wife had spent half a dozen years or so in America, where she had gotten used to calling people by their first name.  We were at a beautiful park enjoying ourselves at a picnic when my wife innocently addressed her aunt by her first name instead of by her relationship status.  My mother-in-law overheard this and was irate.  I must emphasize that my mother-in-law was a very nice, sweet, normally placid woman.  But my mother-in-law was so angry at my wife for calling her aunt by her first name that she barely spoke to Li-ching for a couple of months.

It seems, however, that these naming patterns are rapidly evolving under the impact of increased mobility within cultures and intensifying contact among different peoples.  In my own case, my American students always call me "Professor Mair" or "Doctor Mair" while they are still taking classes and writing their theses and dissertations.  After they graduate, however, some of them will start calling me "Victor" fairly soon, though some of them will wait a few years before doing so.  Most of my East Asian students, however, will continue to call me "Professor Mair" forever, even if I invite them to do otherwise, though I've been stunned by some of the new breed of undergrads from China who call me "Victor" from the first day of class.  Fortunately, they are few and far between.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 7:44 am

    A few years ago I was a part of a pan-national team which included members from the UK (myself), Germany and the Czech Republic. One of the team was, at the time, Rector of one of the major Czech universities. We took on, under contract, a Czech programmer who was fluent in both Czech and English. When he spoke to the Rector in Czech, it was always "Pan rektorem"; in English, it was always "Jiří ".

  2. Jord said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    Here are a few 'English' names from a year I spent teaching in China: http://macvaysia.com/?p=39

  3. languagehat said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 8:16 am

    Many of them, prodded by their American teachers or friends, give up these foreign names after a while

    I would never dream of prodding someone to change the name by which they've chosen to call themselves, but then I wasn't raised by wolves.

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 9:08 am

    I'm from Philly, and I can't imagine, even under the most casual of circumstances, ever calling a current or former teacher anything other than Dr.

  5. GH said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    From a European university, Computer Science department, within the last few years:

    I, and my fellow graduate students, always addressed our advisor (an American professor) by their first name, but when talking about them to people outside of our group we would usually go with "Professor [N]", which is also how we would normally address other faculty. However, if we got to know another professor better (taking one of their seminars, going to a conference together, or similar), we might start addressing them by first name, primarily depending on their age and background. Professors from Germany would almost always be "professor", ones from the UK or US would often go by first name.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 10:10 am

    The association between the choice of name and the choice of 2nd person pronoun is very strong in German: if you are on Sie terms with someone, you call them Herr — or Frau —. When I was at a language/linguistics department in the US many years ago, the German language staff had converged on a cultural compromise: they always used first names with each other, as would be expected (in English) of American departmental colleagues, but when speaking German they maintained the use of du and Sie appropriate to their relationship.

  7. J said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    ""Many of them, prodded by their American teachers or friends, give up these foreign names after a while[.]"

    I would never dream of prodding someone to change the name by which they’ve chosen to call themselves, but then I wasn’t raised by wolves."

    I wonder how Mr. Languagehat would have handled the sweet little 14-year old Chinese girl who introduced herself as 'Cunt' in her language placement test. Persuading her to find a 'better name' without actually telling her what 'cunt' meant was an ordeal. This was the worst, but many, many other names need to be dropped.

  8. languagehat said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 11:20 am

    I wonder how Mr. Languagehat would have handled the sweet little 14-year old Chinese girl who introduced herself as ‘Cunt’ in her language placement test.

    Oh, come on. That's like someone saying they disapprove of shooting dogs in the street and you coming back with the gotcha "Well, what if the dog had rabies, huh?" Yes, if it makes you feel better, I approve of persuading someone who calls herself ‘Cunt’ to change it. If you think that's a representative sample, we'll have to agree to disagree. I taught English in Taiwan, and the English names used by my students varied from the boringly normal to the enchantingly unusual. I appreciated the range and didn't judge anyone; I just took it as a different onomastic dialect, so to speak. But it's true I never had to deal with a ‘Cunt.’

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

    The adopting-a-Western-sounding-first-name seems anecdotally/impressionistically much less common among Japanese. I have no particular theory as to why that might be so. There's probably a partial exception for those who settle down in the US long-term, although even then maybe there's more of a tendency to go for a clipped or otherwise tweaked version of their Japanese given name that is easy for Americans to pronounce and/or coincidentally sounds like a Western given name (e.g. the original name of Benihana steakhouse founder and allround colorful character Rocky Aoki was Hiraoki).

  10. Adrian said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    As others have pointed out, an honorific system was prevalent in central Europe and is either only slowly dying out ot stubbornly refusing to do so. Teaching in Hungary, as a foreigner I could get away with tegezzing my colleagues and using first names, but many of them retained formal relationships with each other, whilst mostly also being friends. An example similar to "Johnson-boojang" is seen in the title of the movie "Ámbár tanár úr". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RxHD39OoVM

  11. mg said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    I work in a setting with a lot of Chinese colleagues, about half of whom use English names and half stay with their Chinese names. While I couldn't imagine my colleagues "pushing" people to drop their English names, I could see friendly encouragement that they didn't have to use them unless they wanted to (i.e., we're all willing to try to pronounce foreign names – no need to coddle us).

    Though I will say that when we had a colleague named "Yu", using an English name would have helped avoid a lot of confusion especially when talking about her to a 3rd party. "I'll take this for Yu"/"No need, I already have it."/"Not you, Yu"

  12. languagehat said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    I could see friendly encouragement that they didn’t have to use them unless they wanted to (i.e., we’re all willing to try to pronounce foreign names – no need to coddle us).

    The problem is that unless this is far more thoughtfully and carefully phrased than is likely in such situations, it can easily come across as "we prefer you to be an exotic, don't try to fit in." Obviously that's not what is meant, but people are not mind-readers.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

    I taught at a school in Shanghai with a pretty wide range of English names among the students. There were plenty of normal English names ("Jennifer"), a handful of strange ones ("Mintie"; "Shady"; "Yellow"), a couple of Japanese ones ("Yuki"), and one "Lolita". Lolita was allowed to keep her name with minimal comment while she was in Shanghai, but she was pressured into choosing a different name before going to the US.

    I tend to imagine that "Cunt" would have had to change even inside China. The teachers wouldn't have been mentally able to use that name.

  14. languagehat said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

    You’re not a mind-reader either and don’t know how it’s been phrased.

    Of course I'm not, but I've been exposed to an awful lot of human interactions, and more importantly I've paid attention when people have complained about the way oblivious members of dominant classes have addressed them (to women: "Smile, you'll look even prettier!"; to people of color: "Can I touch your hair?" etc. etc. — all well-meaning, all clueless). To me, “See Shazrah and Tal and Michel and Jorge haven’t chosen English names – you don’t need to either unless you really want to” sounds horribly condescending; I'd feel like I was being treated like an elementary-school student. My operating assumption would be that the person is comfortable with their English name and I should be too (unless, of course, it is something like Lolita or Cunt, in which case they should be warned).

  15. DG said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

    As a counterpoint to Rose, when I joined my PhD program as a graduate student, all members of the department were addressed by first name only, and I am not sure I ever called my advisor Professor C even in the third person, though he looked very venerable and professorial on occasion. The only people who ever addressed him as professor were undergrads who didn't know him. Even the students in his classes, I think, quickly moved to first name.

  16. mg said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    @languagehat – Don't make assumptions about me and I won't make them about you. I have paid attention and in many situations I'm not part of the dominant class. I also know that a lot of people making the invitation to not change names are doing so out of kindness because they would dislike feeling that they had to change their own name just to be accepted.

  17. Martha said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

    mg – I had a friend (who was an exchange student) in high school named Ai (pronounced like "I"). It posed the same problems.

  18. languagehat said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    Don’t make assumptions about me

    I'm not, I assure you; I'm responding only to your arguments.

    I also know that a lot of people making the invitation to not change names are doing so out of kindness

    Of course they are. See my "Obviously that’s not what is meant" above. You seem awfully defensive about this. Nobody's attacking you. I am pointing out an angle you may not have considered. If you prefer not to consider it, fine.

  19. David Morris said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

    A colleague in Korea told me that a student introduced himself as 'K'been', which he noted down and addressed the student as. As few lessons later, he asked him why he'd chosen that unusual name. He replied 'Oh, is famous actor – K'been Costner!'.

  20. Elizabeth Yew said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

    I remember in the course of learning Mandarin as an older adult my teacher, who was spending her summer in Taiwan, turned me over to a young lady recently arrived from Anhui province as a substitute tutor. My new teacher asked me my name and I told her my Chinese name, but she couldn't bring herself to call me this because of the age difference between us. However she had no difficulty when I told her my American name, with which she addressed me without any embarrassment for the rest of the lessons we had together.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

    I tend to agree with languagehat; someone receiving a dozen invitations of the form "you can use your Chinese name, if you want" is likely to perceive the message "we want you to use your Chinese name".

  22. Pseudonymous Coward said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

    Some people have suggested that the use of inofficial English names is intended to help Anglophones pronounce one's name, or to make oneself or one's name less foreign. This may sound like it makes some sense for many people who go from China, Taiwan or South Korea to a thoroughly anglophone society, but less so when the same people go where English is far less dominant.

    So what happens in those cases? Do many still go with English names, or do many adopt what they think are local names? Does it depend on the perceived status or foreignness of locally dominant language(s)? I think many people have already got or chosen an inofficial English name before they leave their East Asian home for the first time, so choosing a third name for their non-anglophone destination environment would be an additional step over just using their "English" name.

    From my experience in classrooms where they learn the local European language, few (less than one in ten, I'd say) Chinese, Taiwanese or Koreans use distinctly local names (e.g. Björn). Instead, they use their official names, or a tweaked version of their official name (like dropping a syllable, or using their family name when everybody else in the class is clearly using their forenames, or using a pronunciation that is different from the Sinitic or Korean one), or distinctly English names (e.g. John), or names that are common both in English and and the local language. I have not noticed any trend one way or another. Some of the few that do choose a local name arrive at similarly unusual choices as has been described for names used in English environments. Or they choose names that have fallen out of fashion. I'm sure many of those very names would seem way more normal if a person introducing theirself as so-and-so looked and spoke like Average Local Person.

    If you like, you can think about the unspoken baggage this carries. When the learner introduces theirself with an English name, do they do so because they assume it's easier for me to pronounce or remember their English name than their official name? If so, is it unreasonable or even impolite to do so? A question that has already been brought up here: Is it impolite to tell them when I think their name sounds odd, or is it impolite not to tell them? Are learners who use inofficial English or local names asserting special snowflake status for themselves, individually or as a group? Why have I never come across learners from South Asia using inofficial English or local names? After all, English is arguably at least as dominant in South Asia as in East Asia, and people from South Asia may have similarly exotic official names as East Asians. It seems to be almost exclusively Chinese (in the widest sense) and Koreans doing this.

    I don't know if it plays any role that the availability of cheap higher education here may attract a different demographic of aspiring students than those who can afford to go to the United States or the UK.

    If wanting to "blend in" with some group were my reason for choosing a distinctly local name for myself (note that I'm neither saying this is the intention for many people who do use inofficial "Western" names, nor that it actually helps make one less foreign), I'd look up the most popular baby names for my birth year in my target society and go with one of those, perhaps avoiding potentially offensive choices like "Muhammad" for non-Muslims.

    The issue of inappropriate inofficial names such as "Cunt" has been mentioned by other commenters. I'd caution that the opposite case exists, as well. Being "Ai" may merely result in some confusion, but I've come across cases where people were unhappy with their official name because it resembled a taboo word in English or another target language. (Of course, some non-foreign family names resemble taboo words, too.)

  23. Alex said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 10:45 pm

    Our IT outsourcing services firm's staff use a mixture, about 80 percent use English names. The only issues we have had is the first name last name issue. That is to say the order. Some of our staff were called by their last name, they didn't reverse the order and it stuck. Primarily our engagements were onsite at client locations. US, Europe and SE Asia.

  24. bin said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 12:54 am

    I never thought of introducing myself under an English name, until I saw this article from the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper. It was reporting on findings from a working paper written by researchers from the University of British Columbia:

    How an ethnic-sounding name may affect the job hunt (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/how-an-ethnic-sounding-name-may-affect-the-job-hunt/article555082/)


    For 25 per cent of the résumés, the fictitious applicants were given English-sounding names such as Carrie Martin and Greg Johnson, with relevant Canadian undergraduate degrees and Canadian experience at three previous jobs.

    The researchers found that those applications were 35 per cent to 40 per cent more likely to be contacted by employers than the second 25 per cent of the résumés which were identical, except that the supposed applicants had Chinese-, Indian- or Greek-sounding names


    I was quite terrified. The thing is, I am Chinese, and was recently granted immigration to Canada. As I contemplate my future life in Canada, I am now thinking of officially adding an English name, at least as a middle name. How is Benjamin for "Bin"? I don't feel like a Benjamin, and "Bin" is perfectly pronounceable for westerners. But, pragmatic consideration will seem to have to prevail.

    Also, I checked the original UBC working paper the article was based on, and it suggests that a name like "Michael Zhang" gets a slightly higher call-back rate than "Xiaoming Zhang", for example, but still lags far behind "Michael Smith".

    So, should I simply change my name to something like Benjamin Thompson? I can do this legally as a Canadian resident.

  25. Ryan Paltor said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 2:47 am

    I've heard Chinese students call professors "professor [first name]." I wonder if Asian Last name first is behind this confusion.

  26. David Morris said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 5:07 am

    One of my students calls me 'Mr David'.

    Previously, the PRC had Mr Hu and Mr Wen, which sounded like the start of the Abbott and Costello routine.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 5:31 am

    To Bin : If you are concerned that retention of your birth name may adversely affect your career prospects in Canada, then you might like to consider legally changing your name not to "Benjamin Thompson" but simply to "Ben Thompson". "Ben" and "Bin" are very close, "Benjamin" is overkill to my mind. May I ask what your family name is ? Might you consider simply becoming "Ben <family-name>" rather than "Ben Thompson" ?

  28. Bob Ladd said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 6:37 am

    @Ryan Paltor I’ve heard Chinese students call professors “professor [first name].” I wonder if Asian Last name first is behind this confusion.

    I don't think so; I think it's an attempt to combine the deference implicit in the Asian usage with the widespread use of first names in Anglophone interactions. I once had an Arab student who called me "Dr. Bob" until he got more used to Anglophone informality, and Arabic names have the same order of given and family names as English. Also, if the explanation were narrowly linguistic rather than cultural you'd expect Hungarians to attempt things like "Dr. Bob" as well, but I don't know of any anecdotal evidence that they do.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    I have been addressed deferentially/formally as "Mr. FIRSTNAME" by people whose accent etc indicated they were L1 Hispanophone immigrants to the US not yet fully fluent in English. I have assumed (w/o myself knowing the practice in Spanish) that they were just calquing a Spanish usage where one customarily addresses a customer/boss/etc as "Don/Señor FIRSTNAME" rather than "Don/Señor LASTNAME." That the AmEng practice happens to be "Mr. LASTNAME" seems like a pretty arbitrary/contingent convention. Indeed, for Christian clergy there is some noticeable variation between denominations etc between "Father/Reverend/Pastor FIRSTNAME" and "Father/Reverend/Pastor LASTNAME."

  30. languagehat said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 7:57 am

    And of course Yanks are constantly being tripped up by Brit conventions regarding the use of Sir and Lord with given names and surnames.

  31. shm said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 8:06 am

    Wow, I didn't realise this was so common! As an Australian, the idea of calling tertiary academic or workplace superiors at work by " " seems excessively conservative, almost quaint. So too does the idea of referring to tertiary-school lecturers are "teachers", incidentally. Titles are for law enforcement officers, judges, and politicians – I work for one of the big banks, a relatively conservative organisation, and I wouldn't think twice about addressing our CEO by his first name either.

    A good warning of something to keep in mind if I plan on working abroad, I think!

  32. shm said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 8:07 am

    The quote in my last comment got eaten, presumably because it looked like HTML tags. It meant to read something like "{Title} {Surname}"

  33. Ellen K. said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 9:26 am

    It's worth noting that there is a tradition within English language speaking communities of calling older people by Mr. or Miss/Miz followed by first name only. It's apparently primarily, but not entirely, a U.S. Southern thing.

  34. bin said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    @ Phillip Taylor: My family name is Yan. Thanks for suggesting Ben instead. However, Ben Yan sounds a little "phonetically unbalanced" as a name used in a Western context. My impression of Western names is that, if the given name is short phonetically, it tends to be balanced by a longer last name; and vice versa: Chandler Bing (long-short), Ben Afflect (short-long), etc. Two short names do not seem to go together very well, which is why I feel "Ben Yan" sounds a little off compared with "Benjamin Yan".

    You are right however that "Benjamin" itself seems to be a little too much as an adopted name, as it is 3 syllables long. One possibility is to use Benny (Benny Yan) or (yuck!) Benji (Benji Yan), which result in more of a phonetic balance when combined with my Chinese familyname. However, Benny and Benji are just terrible names to my ears, and there is no way for me to use them no matter what.

    I was actually joking when I said about adopting "Thompson" as my family name. That would be too drastic a change and would make me quite uncomfortable. A more real possibility is to anglicize my Chinese family name to Young, hence: Ben Young.

    So, the two options I can think of are: Benjamin Yan, or Ben Young. Any votes, or additional suggestions?

  35. raempftl said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    @bin: Any votes, or additional suggestions?

    An additional suggestion: Keep your Chinese name and regard it as a great way to weed out undesirable employers.

  36. mg said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

    @bin – if you feel compelled to change your first name (which is, of course, a personal decision), it would be reasonable to have it officially Benjamin Yan and tell people to call you Ben. Ben is a nickname for Benjamin and is much less common as the legal first name (similar to Liz for Elizabeth, or Mike for Michael).

  37. John Swindle said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

    @bin: In Hawaii, people from China, regardless of citizenship, tend to use Chinese given name followed by Chinese family name. People born here of Chinese ancestry tend to have an English or Hawaiian given name, a Chinese middle name (for most purposes abbreviated to one or two initials), and a Chinese family name. Someone of Chinese ancestry named "Benjamin Thompson" or (better) "Ben Thompson" might have been adopted as a child or might have taken the family name of a spouse, neither of which would be terrible.

    But you're in Canada and have access to Canadians, presumably including Chinese Canadians. See what they say, and then decide as you like.

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

    To Yan Bin — "Ben Young" sounds perfect to me, if you wish to adopt a Western name. When I am in France, I become "Philippe"; my wife (Vietnamese-born) anglicises all four elements of her name in this country (the UK), dropping all the diacritics and pronouncing all four elements giving Anglo/French-values to both vowels and consonants.

  39. mg said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

    @Bin – The effect of your name on getting call-backs is also likely to vary by field of work. I agree with John Swindle that it would be best to ask Chinese Canadians, since this does vary from country-to-country and likely even by province. Be sure to tell them what type of job you're looking for, to increase the chances of hearing from people with relevant experience.

  40. Milan No said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 6:08 pm

    @Bob Ladd: German titles and pronouns.

    The use of "Sie" with the first name is pretty common in some parts of Northern Germany. In fact, it is known as "Hamburger Sie." In my own high school days, it was the way teachers addressed us once we were sixteen, and it's also common in low-level white collar professional contexts.

  41. Geoff said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 7:14 pm

    Pseudonymous Coward:
    Off-thread in the interests of science: I'd be curious to know, when you wrote, 'When the learner introduces theirself with an English name ….' did that seem perfectly normal and natural, or did you have to pause and consciously decide what to put in the place where you put 'theirself'?
    I'm curious about the distribution of 'theirself', 'themself' and (in this context) 'themselves'.
    I like it, by the way.

  42. Daniel said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

    I'm glad we all gave Yan Bin some good career advice today…. smh

  43. Alex said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

    One of the "interesting" aspects living here in China with the local in-laws is the expectation for me to call them mother and father. In the US it seems calling the in-laws mom and dad or by their first names if invited to do so or Mr and Mrs last name is acceptable.

    It was a big issue when I refused to call my inlaws 妈 and 爸。
    Because they are my kids grand parents I call them 爷爷 婆婆 like my kids. I guess they took at as lack of warmness or family and perhaps it is true. In my mind I have one father and one mother and I felt uneasy calling them that.

  44. TheStrawMan said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

    OT but, could you do a post about the (mis)naming of 一帯一路 which was previously called One Belt One Road but has apparently been renamed the Belt and Road Initiative?

  45. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2017 @ 11:51 pm


    Yes, OT, but it's a very interesting question. I'll try to post on it tomorrow.

  46. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 1:44 am

    @bin: You could also do the reverse of what I did for my Chinese name, which is to find names that mean similar things in the target language.
    Charles Belov -> Strong/Manly White -> 白力漢

    There are limits to this. Translating the given name 明 as Bright is done, and I find it startling (although I would never try to convince someone not to do that unless asked).

    Benjamin Young (call me "Ben") would be a good choice.

    I note that Wikipedia lists quite a few people named Lolita, so it can't be that rare a name.

    Finally, a Chinese friend of mine goes by an altered Chinese transcription for his American name that is both easier to pronounce and avoids an unfortunate correspondence with an English taboo word.

  47. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 1:45 am

    @bin: I also advise against nicknames ending in -y as they can be seen as juvenile (or at least I see them that way, which might be my prejudice). That said, people do use them.

  48. John Swindle said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 2:45 am

    @bin: The nice thing about Benjamin ("call me Ben") Young is that it works as an English name or as an English way to write your Chinese name. You're Ben Young, and in English you write it this way and pronounce it this way, and in Chinese you write it that way and pronounce it that way.

  49. Stephen Goranson said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 4:23 am

    China's "Belt and Road" initiative–is that the best translation? (Apology for off-topic questioning.)

  50. Rose Eneri said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 10:08 am

    To Bin, I'm sorry but I think of Usama Bin Laden when I hear this. I like "Benjamin Young, call me Ben". I agree, no name ending in a "y" sound.

    Regarding my earlier comment about addressing or speaking of current and former professors as Dr. (last name). Perhaps this reflects my advanced age, or my field of study which was finance. Perhaps the mores in the social and physical sciences are more casual.

  51. bin said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 10:48 am

    Hi, thanks everyone for their feedback. I guess I know what my new name will be then :-)

  52. Anthony said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 2:33 pm


  53. Pseudonymous Coward said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 7:32 pm

    Milan No:
    Point in case, I use "Sie" with first name a lot, and very consciously so:
    As a teacher of GSL for mostly adults, I use "du" for my own classes because duzing people of higher age and social standing feels less awkward than guessing each person's age (which I'm bad at), choosing a threshold and using different forms of address within a single class whose membership changes over time. But I do use "Sie" with first name when I substitute for co-workers, except for people who I believe are in the first half of their teens, whom I will then duz, feeling uncomfortable about having to guess ages and drawing a threshold as mentioned above. Another drawback to using "Sie" with first name in GSL classes is that it may lead learners to assume the combination of "Sie" with first name to be more common than it is.

    I paused and conciously decided. English is not my L1. I can't recall ever having encountered, much less used "theirself" before, but of course I'm not the first person to think of it, and Wiktionary predictably has an entry for it. I think I thought something like: "Using 'themselves' is probably the standard choice here, but why use what looks like a plural when I can easily singularize it without causing ambiguity?" The form "themself" (of which "theirself" is an alternative form, according to Wiktionary) did not occur to me, probably (as Wiktionary suggests) on account of parsing "herself" as possessive "her" + "self", possibly reinforced by exposure to jocular "my elf, your elf, one's elf, our elves" on a popular website. I thought of my "theirself" as a transparent wordplay rather than a cromulent English word.

    >I like it, by the way.
    Thank you!
    If you're Dr. Mr. Professor Geoff, I've always liked your posts, as far as I recall; I hope this is the right tense / aspect, as I fully expect to continue to like them.

  54. John Rohsenow said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 1:49 am

    I think I've told this story before, but it may give some perspective on how things have changed over the last 40 or so years. While we were studying at the Stanford IUP Mandarin Center in Taiwan in the late 1960s, my wife also taught English at one of the local colleges. The students were required to each take an "English name" and write it on her seating chart (there were about 50 students in a class). Lots of the names were taken from the Victorian novels that they had read, but my wife did explain to"Floosie" that she probably meant "Flossie", etc. Two class clowns identified themselves as Hitler Lee and Stalin Chen, but she was a bit thrown by "Stiff Wang" (sic). When she asked him after class, he said he had chosen his name after the famous actor who had just finished filming THE SAND PEBBLES in Taiwan, Stiff McQueen.

  55. Keith said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 2:46 am

    I remember that when we started learning French (at 11 years old) and German (12) in school, we were all given French and German names. The teachers tried to give names that started with the same letter as our English names, but my French teacher was unable to find one beginning with K other than "Kevin" (yes, really, there are LOADS of them over here). So I ended up being called Lucien and Klaus.

    After leaving the UK, travelling around and meeting many foreigners who find the θ difficult or impossible to pronounce, I started suggesting that people could call me by my middle name if they found it easier, or I would ask them to give me a name in their language (sometimes with humorous results).

  56. Keith said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 3:21 am


    And of course Yanks are constantly being tripped up by Brit conventions regarding the use of Sir and Lord with given names and surnames.

    Did you hear about the American who thought that Earl Macmillan was a jazz musician?

  57. languagehat said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 7:44 am

    Hah, that's great!

  58. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

    Just received an e-mail from a woman in China named "Samantha" who calls herself "Sam" and has the nickname "Queen of Now".

  59. Jack Brown said,

    May 19, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    >I could see friendly encouragement that they didn’t have to use them unless they wanted to (i.e., we’re all willing to try to pronounce foreign names – no need to coddle us).

    I've actually often thought of the Chinese propensity for choosing an English name as simply a replication of the mandatory practice of Sini-fying foreign names. It's not possible, basically, in Chinese to simply use a foreign name, it has to be turned into a nice-sounding and logical chinese name with perhaps a bit of the 'ring' of the English or other original language name.

    For a person from China, it simply makes sense that they choose an English name with a bit of the 'ring' of their chinese name. It's their cultural practice, they're not doing it 'for us' at all.

  60. MP said,

    May 19, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

    That article Bin posted makes me wonder. I remember another study that found that harder-to-pronounce names also cause a negative effect on job prospects, even if they're not foreign names. And that Canadian study found an effect for Greek names as well, so it is not limited to non-white ethnic names.

    I'd be curious how much of an effect I'd expect for my own name, which is 1. very Italian 2. long and 3. most people hesitate before attempting my name and many pronounce it incorrectly. People have more trouble in the South than the North, which I attribute to there being fewer Italian-Americans in the South.

    I'm sure I'm much better off than someone with a noticeably African-American or non-European foreign name, though…

  61. B.Ma said,

    May 20, 2017 @ 4:01 am

    @Jack Brown and others

    I wonder if the propensity to choose an "English" name has anything to do with the fact that lots of Chinese and Koreans became Christians after becoming exposed to Christianity around the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and the practice just spread even to those who did not become Christians.

    This is in contrast to Japan (where Christianity was suppressed) and South Asia – although I note many Indians who are Christians just have a regular English (or Portuguese etc) Christian name and/or even surname, and no "Indian" name.

    One of my grandmothers may be the earliest Chinese person to have an exclusively English name – she is fully ethnically Chinese, but has never been known by a Chinese name officially or at home and she was born in 1920, though her family spoke both Teochew and English.

  62. Rachael Churchill said,

    May 24, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    @John Rohsenow: Stiff Wang, that's brilliant.

    I once did some voluntary work in Mali, and was encouraged to choose a Bambara name for myself while I was there (I'm British). So I don't think the practice is limited to Asians in English-speaking countries.

RSS feed for comments on this post