Invented Chinese name of an LA lawyer

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Around 60% of the people living in the San Gabriel area are Asians, and the largest proportion among them are Chinese.  To attract the business of the local population, attorney Scott Warmuth decided to put up Chinese billboards in Monterey Park about a decade ago.  How it happened is described in this article:

"Column: Racial politics, attorney advertising and cultural communication in San Gabriel Valley",

Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times (4/1//23)

Although the author, who grew up south of Nashville, Tennessee and who writes about diversity and diaspora, is Chinese, he doesn't say much about the linguistics of Warmuth's name choice, and some of what he says is misleading

Warmuth said cultural intelligence has had a tangible impact. When he first began the business, he adopted a Chinese name: Hua Ming Si. But the last word in his name is a cognate for the Chinese word for death, which bothers more superstitious clientele.

One of his Chinese employees suggested that he change it to Hua Ming Sheng. The change brought a sharp and lasting uptick in business, Warmuth said.

The article doesn't explain why Warmuth originally chose "Hua Ming Si" for his Chinese name (transcriptional), nor the precise reason why he switched to Huá Míngshèng 華明勝.  The "Si" of "Hua Ming Si" is not a "cognate" of the Chinese word for "death", viz., "sǐ 死", rather, it is a homophone of "sǐ 死" ("death").  And what might that hanzi have been?  It almost certainly would have been sī 斯, which is the conventional Sinographic transcription of English final "-th", as in Dartmouth (Dátèmáosī 达特茅斯), Falmouth (Fǎěrmáosī 法爾茅斯), and so forth.  The many meanings of sī 斯 (for which see here, here, and here) are irrelevant, since it is being used to transcribe the -th sound of Warmuth's surname.

As for why the change from sī 斯 to shèng 勝 "brought a sharp and lasting uptick in business", that was indeed a clever suggestion by one of Warmuth's Chinese employees, since shèng 勝 means "victory", and that — as I am keenly aware from billboards all around the Philadelphia area — is what lawyers (and their clients!) desire most fervently.

Incidentally, I seem to recall from my youth long ago that it was against the law for lawyers to advertise for their services (just as it was not permitted for Olympians to accept any kind of pecuniary rewards for their athletic achievements).  Now, in the Philadelphia area, the lawyers are very aggressive with their advertisements, one named "John Morgan" even going so far as to call himself "Jawn Morgan" in an attempt to prove that he's a real Philadelphian, a credential that his advocational competitors call into question.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Michael Raphael]


  1. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    April 2, 2023 @ 12:55 pm

    "Better call 掃羅" (Sǎo-luó).

  2. david said,

    April 2, 2023 @ 3:28 pm

    The first commercial spam on the internet came from lawyers in 1994.

  3. jjwk said,

    April 2, 2023 @ 3:44 pm

    Cleveland has an attorney whose advertising has been so aggressive and ubiquitous that his billboards have been reduced to just showing his eyes.'s-latest-billboard-design-is-eye-catching

  4. Viseguy said,

    April 2, 2023 @ 5:48 pm

    The U.S. Supreme Court blessed lawyer advertising in 1977, holding in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that such ads were a form of "commercial speech" protected by the First Amendment. It was a mixed blessing at best, but First Amendment rights often turn out that way.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 2, 2023 @ 6:01 pm

    At least in New York, lawyer advertising that includes "statements that are reasonably likely to create an expectation about results the lawyer can achieve" is supposed to be accompanied by a "prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome" disclaimer. Not sure how that might apply to adopting a non-English pseudonym that sounds to the targeted audience like "victory."

  6. Chas Belov said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 12:37 am

    When I picked my Chinese name, 白力漢 (Cantonese: baahk lihk hon; Mandarin: bai li han), I went for a translation of my English name rather than a transliteration or. transcription. That way I didn't have to worry about topolect. For Japanese, I added the character for city to my surname, so 白市力漢 (Japanese: Shiraichi Isao).

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 6:20 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    Well, there has to be plenty of American lawyers called Victor or Victoria.

  8. KeithB said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 8:36 am

    On an episode of Green Acres, of all things, Oliver decides to put up a shingle. Lisa helps by putting an ad in the paper, but Oliver exclaims "You can't do that! It is illegal for lawyers to advertise!"

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 9:22 am

    @KeithB: Well, Green Acres was produced in that long-ago time when, e.g. Olympic athletes were still expected to be amateurs.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 10:43 am

    Separate linguistic note: the journalist's surname is interesting because it appears to be the GR romanization of 熊 (Hsiung in Wade-Giles; Xiong in hanyu pinyin). GR spellings of personal/family names are not (in my limited/impressionistic/anecdotal experience) very common among Chinese-Americans.

  11. Guy_H said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 11:28 pm

    This story makes more sense when you look at it through the prism of Cantonese and not Mandarin: Hua Ming Si is pronounced Wa Ming Si in Cantonese, which sounds a lot closer to Warmuth.
    The character 斯 ("si") is neither a cognate nor a homophone for death ("sei") in Cantonese, so it probably did not occur to the translator. I would note that 斯 is not a usual character in native Chinese names (usually only foreign ones), whereas the replacement character 勝 is more culturally suitable.

  12. John J Chew said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 9:25 am

    As Guy_H said, Warmuth almost certainly chose the "Hua Ming" part of his adopted Chinese name because it evoked "Warmuth", and then added first "Si" and then "Sheng" to have a given name that matched his English "Scott".

    When we were naming our younger son, we wanted him to have an English name and a Japanese name to reflect our family's ethnicities. We didn't want to choose one from the very short list of names that work in both languages (Ken, George, Ray) because they're overused in our community, so we did as Warmuth did and chose names that started off the same way, to try to minimize confusion, and it's worked out okay for Liam / 龍榮 (Ryuuei). (And for those non-Japanese speakers who might still be confused, both names start with the kana "ri" in Japanese.)

  13. Michael Watts said,

    April 11, 2023 @ 2:24 am

    When we were naming our younger son, we wanted him to have an English name and a Japanese name to reflect our family's ethnicities. We didn't want to choose one from the very short list of names that work in both languages (Ken, George, Ray)

    I'd have to agree that "George" is an unremarkable English name, but… how does it work as a Japanese one? It has a rhotic vowel and then a syllable-final /dʒ/. As far as I can learn, it is possible for the final vowel of a Japanese word to be deleted when it's preceded by a voiceless consonant, but /dʒ/ isn't voiceless.

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