English names for Chinese babies

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I first heard about Beau Jessup (founder [2015] and CEO of Special Name) and her Chinese baby-naming business a couple of years ago.  There was even a TEDx talk by her about it:

At the time, I thought it was a flash in the pan and would soon grow old.  Little did I expect that Beau's business would still not only be around today, but it would be booming, and has enabled her to put herself through college (social anthropology at the London School of Economics) with it:

"This 19-year-old is paying her way through college by naming over 677,000 Chinese babies

"Woman, 19, earns more than £260k naming babies for strangers:  Beau Jessup is using the profits of her unusual business to fund her degree in social anthropology",

"Meet the teen making millions naming Chinese babies:  A British teenager has amassed a small fortune with a weird and wonderful idea that came to her during a holiday to China", by Shireen Khalil, news.com.au (3/20/19)

Here's how Beau did it (quoting from the third article):

…"Dad was going on a business trip and I decided to go with him because I was on holidays," Beau told news.com.au.

"He was with a business colleague who had a three-year-old daughter and she had asked me to suggest an English name for her little girl.

"I was surprised by this because having the responsibility to name a child is quite important. I wanted to take it seriously."

The now 19-year-old asked the woman to list a series of characteristics she wanted her daughter to have — and from that Beau suggested the name Eliza, based on the fictional character Eliza Doolittle who is a quick-witted and strong character unafraid to stand up for herself.

"She was so happy with it and took the name suggestion straight away," Beau said.

After returning from her holiday, Beau — who can read, write and speak Chinese after studying it at school for seven years — did some research and realised there wasn't a baby-naming business specifically targeted to the Chinese community.

Her next step was to convince her father Paul, also an entrepreneur with an online teddy bear boutique business, to lend her £1500 (just under $A3000).

After he gave his tick of approval, Beau used the money to hire a website creator and spent the rest on advertising on WiiChat [sic –> WeChat], the largest community platform in China.

As she was still at school, the former Cheltenham Ladies College student had to wait for holidays before conducting more research.

She spent the next three weeks sorting through hundreds of baby name books to ensure she picked names that were not only culturally appropriate but had historical meaning and connotations. She came up with a database of 4000 names.

"Each name has been attributed to five characteristics. The system then matches their five characteristic to my five and three names are generated, which is what they pay for."

Beau said the way it worked was very simple and involved just three steps.

"They click the gender (there's an icon for "boy" and "girl"), it then takes you to a page where there's 12 symbols of characteristics (such as elegant, honest, optimistic) — they pick five of those that they want their child to have and from that it matches with my five to then generate three name options."

The 19-year-old, who has now named more than 677,000 babies, said the common traits people wanted their kids to have were empathy, honesty, kindness and beauty for a girl and sporty, strong and smart for a boy.

Generally, popular girls' names are Katherine, Mary, Elizabath and Charlotte (i.e. the royal family), and for boys it's William, Matthew and Jake.

Beau said that while all Chinese babies are given a traditional Chinese name at birth, which is written in Chinese characters, there is now a massive demand for Chinese to also adopt an additional English name.

She explained that while she never expected the business to grow so quickly, she's also not surprised by the interest.

"The fact that China is becoming a global economy bridging the west and east, it's a service that's becoming increasingly necessary," she said.

The entrepreneurial teen said she was also inspired after hearing some of the "embarrassing" English names Chinese parents had chosen — including Gandalf and Cinderella.

"When I was at school, a lot of the Chinese girls had English names, but some were very odd like "Popcorn", and it's a shame because people would take the mickey out of them, which isn't nice, and I didn't want to perpetuate that."

It's amazing that so many Chinese want their children to have English names.  Yet, when I reflect that virtually all of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who are studying abroad have an English name, it's not so surprising after all.

Come to think of it, a young American businesswoman also started a site like this in 2015:

"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 Liquid" by Tom Phillips, The Telegraph (3/31/15)

In the context of the role of English in China and whether Mandarin will be a world language, topics that we've often discussed on Language Log and have been in the news during the last few days (see Selected readings below), the Beau Jessup baby naming phenomenon is worth pondering.

 

Selected readings

[h.t. Bill Benzon]



23 Comments

  1. J Rohsenow said,

    March 29, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

    ""When I was at school, a lot of the Chinese girls had English names, but some were very odd like "Popcorn", and it's a shame because people would take the mickey out of them, which isn't nice, and I didn't want to perpetuate that."
    Possibly "Popcorn" had chosen her name herself. As I may have mentioned before, when my wife and I were studying Chinese at the IUP Stanford Center in Taipei in 1969, she was teaching English at a local college. As all the students were "required" to choose English names,
    she had them fill out a seating chart. Among the girls there were lots of
    Milllies and Pansies, etc. and one young woman who wrote "Floosie", who it turned out meant "Flossie". Hitler and Stalin Lin were obviously wise-guys, but she was curious about "Stiff Wang" (sic). When she spoke to him after class, he explained that he had chosen the name after the famous American movie star, who had just made the Sand Pebbles film in TW, "Stiff McQueen". Things have doubtless improved since then. ;-)

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    March 29, 2019 @ 9:21 pm

    I've always found this confusing. My name is 'Ambarish', whether it is English I'm speaking or Tamil. I write my name 'Ambarish' in English. And so my "English name" remains 'Ambarish'.

    Shouldn't these really be termed Biblical or European-origin names?

  3. Allen Thrasher said,

    March 29, 2019 @ 10:44 pm

    A lot of them are not Biblical, and Biblical names would not usually be of European origin, though some, from figures in the New Testament or the deuterocanonical books such as Maccabees, are of Greek or Latin origin. Anyway, at least in the Anglosphere, they are the English versions of names, William rather than Guglielmo or Wilhelm, so they can reasonably be called "English names."

    It occurs to me that the reason that Chinese take "English name" while South AsIans, Arabs, Japanese, etc. usually do not, is that Chinese being a tonal language, a non-Sinophone will usually badly totally mispronounce a Chinese name, and that will variously strike the Chinese as unintelligible, undignified, meaning something bad, or the like. The mispronunciation of names from non-tonal languages will be less severe.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    March 29, 2019 @ 11:46 pm

    It occurs to me that the reason that Chinese take "English name" while South AsIans, Arabs, Japanese, etc. usually do not, is that Chinese being a tonal language, a non-Sinophone will usually badly totally mispronounce a Chinese name

    I don't think this has anything to do with it. They take English names for a number of reasons, but mostly those reasons are cultural accommodation — the idea is that you, as an English speaker, will have an easier time addressing them by their English name. (And heck, you'll also have an easier time just remembering what their name is.)

    The more interesting cases are things like international companies, where English names may be encouraged or required, either to make things easier for certain groups of employees or as a statement about the company culture.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    March 29, 2019 @ 11:49 pm

    By way of example, I had someone express to me that having lived in China for so long and studied the language to the extent I had, I should really be using a Chinese name. If you think the point of names is to fit better into the local culture, this makes sense. If you think the point of names is that Americans are liable to mispronounce Chinese names and therefore you have to use English names around them, it would make no sense to tell me to use a Chinese name. That would just make the problem worse!

  6. Scott P. said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 1:10 am

    "It's amazing that so many Chinese want their children to have English names. Yet, when I reflect that virtually all of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who are studying abroad have an English name, it's not so surprising after all."

    There are many Chinese students studying at my (American) university, and none of them have English names.

  7. Kristian said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 1:46 am

    There are some things about this that don't add up for me. These are maybe a bit besides the point of the post, but —

    How do we know that she's named more than 677,000 babies? Do the parents have to send in a copy of the birth certificate to prove they've used a name provided by the service? I would assume that they don't. Yet the article just informs us that she's named so many babies even though in reality that's probably just the number of people who have used the website.

    Also, a list of 4000 names? That's a huge number of names. That would probably include a lot of extremely unusual names (in the eyes of native English speakers). So the user of this service might very well end up with an inappropriate name. A list of the 1000 most common girls' names (in America) I found on the internet has names like Armani, Braylee, Egypt.

    Also, how does she come up with five characteristics to associate with each name? Obviously many names have meanings, or histories, or come from mythology or the Bible or saints. But in reality I'm guessing she just makes them up. Because how would you come up with five non-arbitrary characteristics to associate to the name Felicity, for instance? Felicity just means felicity. Or Rose? Or Mary, for that matter? Almost anything (positive) that one comes up with would be right.

  8. Phil H said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 1:53 am

    I wonder if some of the issue has to do with relative under-use of first names in China. Among the Chinese people that I know (I'm 37, live in southern China), use of the first name is relatively rare. Nicknames, often with generation markers attached, are more common. Use of the first name on its own is mostly reserved for parents talking to their children, come to think of it. When I meet someone here, it often frustrates me how no-one does name introductions – and this is coming from a Brit. We're famous for not using names much in the first place.
    So I think the Chinese were primed for using non-Chinese names. Particularly when they met Americans, who use first names in ways that would be utterly unthinkable in Chinese. (The idea of addressing my Chinese boss or my parents-in-law by their first name… it's not even wrong! It's just unthinkable.) In that sense, many Chinese people who adopted English names weren't taking a name that would replace their Chinese name. They were adopting a "handle" that they could use in professional/public situations where their Chinese conventions of address would not be effective.
    Obviously, that's changing now, and many people are now much more comfortable with using their Chinese names in foreign language situation – though it's important to remember that a Chinese name includes the characters used to write it, so most non-Chinese interlocutors won't ever get it exactly, even if they get the pronunciation correct.

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 5:27 am

    "There are many Chinese students studying at my (American) university, and none of them have English names."

    When I worked in an administrative office for graduate programs what I noticed was that while Chinese speakers usually had English nicknames as in (just making up names) "My name is Wei Chang but I go by "Gary"… but Gary never appeared in his paperwork.
    One employee in the division (in their 40s) had immigrated as a teen and while everybody used an English first name for them it was not part of their legal name at all.

    And of course different language communities have different preferences in terms of outsiders having 'insider' names. When learning ASL it was stressed that while eventually you would get a name-sign you couldn't create it yourself, it had to come from a Deaf person who knew you. Mine eventually came from overuse of a sign I had learned but which ASL users did not really use, the handshape was changed to my first initial and voila I had a name-sign

    Another sign language I learned name-signs were not so important and the same person might be referred to differently by different people (and mostly calques of the person's legal name were used).

  10. TIC said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 5:28 am

    I know better than to use comments to ask basic questions that are readily answered in a post's linked materials, and I'll admit that I've so far read through some but not all of this post's, so instead of actually asking them at this point I'll just mention some of the questions that are ringing louder and louder in my ears as I continue to read more and more… Why are the terms "name" and "naming" being so consistently used in regard to this practice?… These aren't in any way officially registered names within China, are they?… They're really just unofficial, English-language *nicknames* (or, as a previous commenter referred to them, "handles") that are being selected early on by the parents (rather than, with or without the child's input, later in life) and that might (assuming that the parents' wishes are fulfilled) be used formally/officially only later in life when the child interacts with English-language entities and institutions (within or outside of China)?… What is it that I seem to be missing here?…

  11. cliff arroyo said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 8:58 am

    "What is it that I seem to be missing here?…"

    I had a lot of the same questions (hence my previous comment). It all makes me wonder whether parents will want to begin making these names official in the future… and whether at some point in the nearer than we might like to think "English" names will be required (alongside Chinese names).

  12. Tye Power said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 8:59 am

    "People would take the 'mickey' out of them"? The mickey? From context it sounds like they were teased. I'm curious about the origin of this phrase.

    [(myl) Let me google that for you, yielding "The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Take the mickey'". ]

  13. Andrew Usher said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 9:31 am

    The idea that it's just 'cultural assimilation' to take a new English name seems a bit strange; we don't see that in other cross-cultural context. We don't expect people to invent an English name unrelated to their original given name just for our convenience, and as far as I know other European languages are essentially the same way.

    And I have to say that 'Beau' Jessup' should find her own first name no less embarrassing than many of the cited Chinese examples! I also agree the 677,000 number is bogus – what should have been cited is how many people _paid_ for the service (if there's no payment, it can hardly be a business).

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  14. Jonathan said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 10:47 am

    "When I was at school, a lot of the Chinese girls had English names, but some were very odd like "Popcorn", and it's a shame because people would take the mickey out of them, which isn't nice, and I didn't want to perpetuate that."

    So no one else was struck by this quote, and wondered why she didn't work on the people taking the mickey?

  15. Scott P. said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

    "So no one else was struck by this quote, and wondered why she didn't work on the people taking the mickey?"

    Maybe none of us know what a 'mickey' is, except a type of rodent?

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 4:52 pm

    At least one reader (a native speaker of <Br.E>) knew exactly "taking the mickey" means, since in <Br.E> it is a far older, and infinitely more polite, version of "taking the pi$$".

  17. Jonathan said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 6:08 pm

    Scott P., as an American English speaker, I agree that "take the mickey (out of someone)" is one of the most opaque britishism out there. And I'll mention to Phillip Taylor that it isn't any more obvious what "taking the piss (out of someone)" should mean. The funny thing is that the American equivalent is "to pull someone's leg", and I think it is equally figurative, and I wouldn't be surprised for a non-native speaker to wonder what the heck I was talking about if I used it.

  18. Martha said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 8:10 pm

    Regarding the above comment, "We don't expect people to invent an English name unrelated to their original given name just for our convenience…": It's interesting that you bring this up, because among my ESOL students, I find that Chinese students tend to choose English names that are pretty much Anglicized versions of their actual names (Ailian who went by Irene, for example), whereas my students from other countries (off the top of my head, I can think of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese students who chose English names), tend to choose names unrelated to their given names.

    As an American, either I've misinterpreted "take the mickey/piss" (mock/tease) or I've misinterpreted "pull someone's leg" (mislead in a teasing way) or they aren't equivalent. I'd say the American equivalent is "make fun of," although for all I know, Brits use that, too.

  19. John Swindle said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 11:10 pm

    The status of official vs unofficial names would be a whole 'nother topic. Don't Western students of Chinese language often end up getting Chinese names, though? My surname, like it or not, is Swindle, and at one point I wanted to call myself 斯温德 Sī Wēndé. The first character was an existing surname, and I figured the whole thing would sound like "See One Duck" in Cantonese (which I didn't speak). My friends said it would just be stupid.

  20. Chas Belov said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 1:49 am

    One shortcoming of a small set of English names supplying a large number of people with Chinese surnames is that there are a relatively low number of Chinese surnames, leading to lots of Michael Wongs, for example. I do know a number of Chinese Americans with uncommon English given names, for example, Chadwick, which ameliorates this disadvantage.

  21. GH said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 7:41 am

    @Kristian:

    Also, a list of 4000 names? That's a huge number of names. That would probably include a lot of extremely unusual names (in the eyes of native English speakers).

    At 2000 names for each gender, I don't think it's that extreme. I found a dataset of baby names given in Alberta, Canada from 1980 to 2018, and down in the 2000s (ranked by frequency) we find names like Wes, Bram, Clancy, Irvin, Niels, Scotty, Claudio, Chas, and Yves on the male side, and Sybil, Saffron, Nikola, Katelynne, Juliane, Jerika, Milly, Georgette, Marcela, Josey, Guinevere on the female.

    Particularly the female names at this frequency seem dominated by less common spellings of relatively normal names (not sure how Jessup treats these), and we also have many Asian names on both sides: I'm guessing most of her customers would not want to pick an "English name" like Mostafa or Gagandeep, even if they are – at least in Alberta – more common than most of the ones I listed.

    But filter these out, and you're still left with a whole bunch of fairly unexceptional names to fill out the list. I therefore believe you could compile a list of 4000 English names where many might be a little unusual, but none of them particularly bizarre.

  22. Kristian said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 1:45 pm

    @GH
    Well, maybe. Also, perhaps the software weights the results in favor of more common names.

    The whole thing can't help but remind me of the part in Brideshead Revisited when Cordelia explains to Charles that some Catholic missionaries will baptize African children after the names of donators. Except the money is going a different way here.

    "'D'you know, if you weren't an agnostic, I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter.'

    'Nothing will surprise me about your religion.'

    'It's a new thing a missionary priest started last term. You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you. I've got six black Cordelias already. Isn't it lovely ? ' "

    I wonder how many Chinese girls have been named "Beau".

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    No, 'to pull someone's leg' is certainly not equivalent to 'take the piss out of someone'. I'd really wish Brits would stop assuming more knowledge of American English than they actually have.

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