Saturday, August 27, 2011

What's In A Name?



We, in the west, live in a culture where a name’s meaning isn’t as important as the way it sounds.  We would never name our daughter Slaarkuntharg Gyeskthustar, even if we did find out it meant “most beautiful creature to be born of a woman,” in Slavic.  Why?  Because it sounds like you’re throwing up when you say it!  We would much rather name her Mallory (which means unfortunate), Claudia (lame) or Apple.  We don’t care because they sound good, and in our culture, the way a name rolls off the tongue is much more important than what it means (if it means anything at all).
I had a professor in College named Wes.  Wes went to Ethiopia, and when he was introduced, the person introducing him said “This is Wes.  His name means - NOTHING!”  The whole room burst into uproarious laughter, because in their culture, the meaning in your name is your identity!  A name without a meaning would be unthinkable.
I live and work in South Korea, a country where meaning in a name is very important.  It is very common for one person to ask another, “What is the meaning of your name?”  Usually, the meanings go back to the ancient Chinese characters which were used hundreds of years ago.  My wife’s Korean name, as an example, is 시 은 (pronounced “Shee-Uhn”), which means she gives grace. The meaning is beautiful and the name was given to her, because those around us felt it described her character.  Naturally, when we give names to students in the English classroom, they often ask, “what does this name mean?”  Sometimes, they go home and type the name into a dictionary or translator, and come back with concerns about the meaning of a name.  I have given out the name “Jay” or “Jason” three or four times.  This is easy to do, because 제선 (pronounced “Jae-Sun”) is a not uncommon Korean male-name.  One of my best friends is named Jay, so when I give out this name, it is a sort of a name-sake for me.  However, more than once I have had a student come into my classroom, after translating the name, asking for a different name.  When they put the name into their dictionaries, it comes out meaning boorish, rustic or countrified. When I tell them it does not matter in Western culture, they tell me that it does matter in Korean culture and if others looked the word up, they would be embarassed about the meaning of their name.  This is a little difficult for me, since sometimes they don’t look up the meaning for a few months, and I have to try to re-learn a new name for an old face.
I told a class today, after Jay asked me for a new name, that my name means toilet… even though baby dictionaries will try to tell you that John means beloved one of God.


***This was written more than one year ago as a post for my old blog. You can find this post and more here.

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