6 things you need to understand about Korean names

Written by on February 8, 2013 in Lifestyle

When you are first introduced to Korean names, they are quite difficult to understand. They sound unfamiliar, and you might not know how they work, and the Korean people you meet might not know how to help you understand. How do you properly address a Korean person? There are many things you need to know before you can do it competently.

Starting with: this is most certainly not how it’s done.

Koreans usually have only three syllables to express and identify themselves to the world, and with only 85 million Korean people around the world, you can imagine that a lot of Korean people have the same name. Actually, if you ask around, you will likely have trouble finding a single Korean person who has never heard of anyone else who shares a name with them. Without middle names, there are only so many permutations you can anticipate.

Even with so many limitations on the number of possible permutations, Korean names continue to surprise me.

Here are six facts that may surprise you.

6. Name order

Yes, you probably know that Korean names have the last name first, first name last*. This probably reflects the emphasis Korean society places on family above the individual, which is the opposite from the western world (no matter how much pundits may rant about “family values”).

It sounds simple enough to get straight, but it’s way too easy to mix up, either through unfamiliarity or inconsistent communication.

To shake things up a bit, many media outlets — and many Koreans themselves — will reverse the order when addressing non-Koreans. For instance, Lost actress Yunjin Kim seems to always show up in credits with her name backwards. If I don’t call myself “Dunbar Jon” in Korea, then why should she also mangle her name? Although my name often leads to confusion among Koreans who don’t know much English, and I’m frequently called “Mr Jon” and sometimes just “Dunbar.”

Lost: how many people feel about Korean names.

This possibility that a Korean name has been reversed to conform to western standards also leads to a lot more confusion. One of the worst for me is Nam June Paik. Should I call him Mr Nam or Mr Paik? It makes it that much harder for me to remember his name and look him up online. Another example I encountered recently was Yeol Eum Son, whose name I really needed to find in Korean to figure out what it was. Sure, I don’t think “Yeol” is a family name, but “Yeol Eum” makes a pretty unfamiliar personal name too. In a more extreme case, I’ve heard numerous non-Koreans refer to North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong-il as “Mr Il.”

There’s one obvious way to deal with this, and that’s to consistently format Korean names in a way that isolates the family name from the two syllables of the personal name. At least Yunjin Kim does this, so as long as you don’t mistake Kim as her personal name you know to call her Yunjin. The two syllables of the personal name can be attached either by removing the space, by hyphenating, or by using CamelCase. So, Yeol Eum Son becomes Son Yeoleum, Son Yeol-eum, Son Yeol-Eum, or Son YeolEum. I consider the first two to be superior, but in her case it’s best to hyphenate so the vowels are less confusing.

You’re on TV, Mr Nam. Er, Mr Paik? …Mr June?

*When talking about Korean names, we should always avoid the terms “first name” and “last name.” Instead, surname or family name and personal name or given name are much less culturally biased.

5. Unusual sized names

Once you understand the order of Korean names, you start expecting three syllables when you learn a Korean person’s name. If they give you just one or two, you know something’s missing. But that’s not always the case.

Some Koreans end up with a one-syllable personal name. For instance, one of my coworkers at KOCIS is photographer Jeon Han, whose name you can see below many of our site’s photos. That’s his full name, nothing else. The Korean word for this is 외자 이름, which literally means one-syllable name. If you follow a conversation when someone with a one-syllable name is introducing themself to another Korean, you’ll often hear something like this:

Jeon Han: My name is Jeon Han.
Other person (impatiently): Yeah, yeah, what’s the rest of it? Keep going.

So this name clearly confuses many Koreans as well, who are also used to the standard three-syllable name.

This type of name presents additional difficulties to non-Koreans, as there’s really no way to know if he’s giving his name in the correct order or trying to make westerners comfortable by reversing the order. It doesn’t help that both names could also be surnames, as it is in Jeon Han’s case. Usually with names like this, I find the lack of third syllable makes the name a lot easier to remember, the same way a two-digit number might be easier to remember than a three-digit number.

But then you get Koreans with normal-sized names confusing you by giving abbreviated versions of their own names. I can’t count the number of times a Korean has introduced themself by surname only — “I am Park.” It’s so generic I won’t remember it, and it seems rude to call someone that way unless they’re your subordinate, like in the army. I certainly don’t like being called “Dunbar” by Koreans who assume it’s my personal name.

But also, there seems to be an increasing number of Koreans shortening their names. For instance, my friend Kiseok has most of his foreign friends calling him “Ki,” which might be easier to remember, but feels like a cheat. Your name doesn’t really have one syllable. I put these people in the same group as hipsters who wear glasses without prescription lenses.

The show Lost, which I already brought up, was guilty of this with the two Korean characters Sun and Jin. Or, Sun-hwa and Jin-soo if you were paying attention to the Korean parts. If you’re a fan of Lost, don’t worry — we’ll be discussing it again soon.

I count four characters who haven’t disclosed their real names here.

Of less urgency, Korean names can be longer by an additional syllable, either added to the family name or the personal name.

There are roughly 13 two-syllable family names. The ones I could find were: Gangjeon, Namgung, Dokgo, Dongbang, Mangjeol, Sagong, Seomun, Seonu, Sobong, Eogeum, Janggok, Jegal, and Hwangbo. Of these, Namgung is the most common, and it’s way down the list of family names. Interestingly, most Namgungs seem to have one-syllable personal names, including footballers Namgung Do and Namgung Woong and actor Nam Koong Won.

Personal names with three characters are usually even more unconventional. Usually you’d expect them not to have Hanja. I once saw a girl working in a McDonald’s whose name was Mae-a-ri (surname forgotten), which turns out to mean “echo.” More on pure Korean names next.

4. Chinese meaning

Yes, Korean names have Chinese meanings, with a few notable exceptions. And to make things even more complicated, one Korean syllable could have multiple corresponding Hanja. For instance, Cheol (철), which is often considered to mean “Iron,” could be represented by 喆, 澈, 撤, 轍, 綴, 凸, or 輟, which may not be related to iron at all, and one of them I suspect is flipping you off. Often Hanja names imply qualities that parents want of their kids. For instance, “Mi,” a common syllable in female names, usually stands for “Beautiful,” and “Hui” which can be found in male and female names often means “Light.”

Above: Korean. Below: Hanja.

I know a Keun-woo who told me he was embarrassed of his Hanja name, which meant “Great Universe” and apparently showed his parents’ early wish for him to be either a great leader or a space explorer (last I heard he was a jazz drummer).

In 1991 the Korean government created the Table of Hanja for Personal Name Use which currently lists 5038 Hanja permitted for use in Korean names.

The funny thing about this is that they’re using a foreign language to make their names, and just as sure as your Chinese tattoo probably doesn’t mean what you think it does, there are many Korean names with Hanja meanings that come together to for an entirely different word in Chinese. For instance, the normal-sounding name Jeong-su, when spelled in Hanji, comes to mean “Wite-Out” or “correction fluid” in Chinese.

Or maybe their parents made a mistake on the birth certificate.

That probably wouldn’t bother most Koreans, but the traditional Hanji names have been challenged by a fad for native Korean names. Common examples may include Areum (Beauty), Haneul (Sky), or as I mentioned above, Mae-a-ri. This seems to have started in the ’70s, and falls in and out of fashion. I know an Areum who really didn’t like her name, so she had it legally changed to a more standard name with a Hanja meaning. I’ve also met a few Koreans whose names seem too perfectly to be based on foreign names: I taught a Yohan once, and worked with a Hannah, two people who will never have to worry about choosing an English name for English class.

3. Maiden names

In the west, it’s becoming more common for women to keep their maiden names when they get married, usually because forcing a woman to change her last name is seen as sexist. But in Korea, women as a rule keep their father’s name. Of course, their children inherit their father’s family name, so it’s not all fair for the wife.

I mentioned we’d be dwelling on Lost again, and here we are. Did anyone else ever wonder why Jin and Sun both shared the family name Kwon? Since Korean women don’t give up their maiden name, does that mean they both have the same name? It turns out that Sun’s father was actually a Paik, and she changed it when she married Jin, obviously for the benefit of American viewers and/or script writers. Probably not a big deal for everyone except Yunjin Kim and every Korean watching the show (though probably not as big a deal as Daniel Dae Kim’s hilarious American accent).

“You mean we’re not related? Awesome! By the way, don’t you think I’d be more convincing as a Hawaiian?”

There’s a bit of a stigma in Korean culture about a married couple sharing the same family name. Not so much if they’re both Lees, Parks, or Kims, because there are many different clans claiming those names, but two Kwons or two Jeups would raise a lot of eyebrows. In fact, until 2005 it was outright illegal for people with the same surnames from the same clan to get married. Nowadays, when Koreans with the same surname get engaged, they do a family tree search to make sure they’re not too closely related (fourth cousins or closer will definitely not get married). And there are anecdotes about this happening more often than you’d think.

A distribution of Kims shows that the vast majority of Kims are from the Gimhae or Gyeongju clans. Oh, by the way, over 1/5 of all Koreans carry the surname Kim.

But this inability to fathom this custom spreads out into the nonfictional world from time to time. A great example is Ban Ki-moon’s wife, who is often just referred to as “Mrs Ban” by the media and even the UN. Even her husband’s UN biography page refers to her as “Madam Yoo (Ban) Soon-taek” followed by “Mrs Ban.”

I’ve also heard that some modern Korean couples are starting to hyphenate their family names, but I’ve yet to encounter this and it doesn’t quite make sense to me, as it would pop their name out of the standard three-syllable format.

2. Name genders

Many of the problems associated with Korean names that come into play are caused by the simple unfamiliarity with the way Korean names sound. What is a Park Ji-Sung? Do we call him Park, or Ji, or Sung, or Park Ji, or Ji-sung? Maybe his parents are Mr Ji and Mrs Sung? They’re just syllables that have no context, or sometimes an accidental or even vulgar one.

Apparently one of these is a Park Ji-sung. Also, jerseys are one place where Korean names are especially problematic.

But one of the greatest difficulties with understanding Korean names can be in identifying gender. Have a look at these names and see if you can figure out whether they’re male or female.

Eun-shil F
Kyu-ha M
Taek-hyun M
Ji-woong M
Gwang-hee F
Cho-yeon F
Bo-mi F
Jae-woo M
Sae-hoon M
Myung-ok F
Jin-kyung F
Seung-joon M
Jeong-seok M
Song-hwa F
Ji-young F
Jong-hee Either
Su-min Either
Bo-ram Either
Young-soon Either
Min-ju Either

Highlight the names to see the answers. They are all based on people I know, so it’s possible more than five are androgynous.

The only way to get all these straight is to become familiar with Korean names. soon you’ll notice certain trends, like “Hoon” and “Seok” tend to be more common in men, and “Mi” and “Kyung” are more feminine. But you’ll always be left guessing.

1. Personal preference

In many cases, a Korean name is romanised not by mechanical process, but by individual choice. Many Koreans will choose one romanisation and stick with it, and the same name in Korean could romanise differently due to differing romanisation rules, personal preference, or even user error.

For instance, the popular names Kim and Park have been set in stone for as long as Koreans have been migrating to other countries. Both names were romanised under McCune-Reischauer, and their modern romanisation under Revised Romanisation would be Gim and Bak — but I can’t imagine anyone who’s been a Kim or a Park for decades deciding to update the spelling.

Names that were romanised long ago and standardised in that form basically can’t be changed. Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, has one of the most confusing romanisations I’ve seen — setting aside the Rhee for a moment, where did that Y come from? Apparently sometime after his presidency, Korea’s romanisation rules changed, but rather than introduce the world to Lee Seungman, his name has basically been left alone.

Syngman Rhee being officially bestowed with the letter Y by the US.

Rhee was born in Hwanghae-do in modern-day North Korea, where they still use their own variant of McCune-Reischauer. Not only would they favour Rhee over Lee, but they’d also use 리 instead of 이. If you see a lot of North Korean words, it’s usually like South Korean, but they’ll slot ㄹ into words where it is absent in the South, so Lee is Rhee, Yim is Lim, Yang is Ryang, and Noh is Roh, which is all reflected in the original Korean, not just the romanisation. Their adherence to this romanisation scheme results in a lot of differences from South Korean. Notably, it’s Kim Jong-un in North Korea, yet a girl I know in the South with the same unfortunate name is Kim Jungeun.

Also, if you’re romanising your name into a non-English language that uses the Latin script, you might make different choices. I’ve heard of “Au” used as an alternative to “Oh,” which might make the most sense if the person moves to a French-speaking country. Koryo-in in the former USSR prefer Tsoi to Choi or Choe, which is how you get Viktor Tsoi. I’ve even heard of his name being romanised as Zoy.

On an individual level, there’s some leeway given in how you romanise your Korean name. Many people choose something creative, often just a single letter. For instance, I know a Juyoung and a Jooyoung, and a Yujin and a Youjin. I’ve met a Da-bin who prefers Davin, and a Hyun-ju who goes by Hyun-zu. This seems to be especially popular among artists to find untraditional ways to romanise their names, for instance Lie Sang Bong, IMseonoc, and Songzio. The man behind Korean indie band Noisecat goes by Seokho Zeon rather than Jeon, while Yamagata Tweakster is formed by Han Vad rather than Bad (which is a pseudonym anyway).

It’s great to have this little outlet to show some individuality, but the downside is that it can lead to some unfortunate decisions or outright errors. For instance, I can’t figure out baseball player Lee Seung-yuop got such a bizarre romanisation, unless someone hit U instead of E on the keyboard. The director of Jiseul romanises his name as O Muel, which I think any English speaker would pronounce as “Oh Mule.” First time I saw this, I had to look it up, and the standard romanisation would be Myeol. I’ve met a guy who went by Jeayeon before, and if I hadn’t known I would’ve assumed he’s a Ji-yeon, a very feminine name, rather than Jae-yeon.

Well, at least he didn’t do anything too weird romanising Jiseul.

In my role as editor of Korea.net, I have to be careful when it comes to potential romanisation errors. Did Lee Seung-yuop specifically choose that spelling as his official name in English, or did someone in the media mess up early on and the error’s been perpetuated? In his case I erred on spelling his name the standard way, but I’ve let O Muel skate by.


About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is an editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats