Monday, 21 November 2011

What's in a Name?

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One of the first Korean friends I made was a student of mine that I taught English at a language institute in 2006. His name, Jun Hyun-Jin. Recently Jun Hyun-Jin suddenly became Jun I-Sum. Why? Well apparently the Korean Sound Wave Name Institute convinced him that his name Jun Hyun-Jin is full of bad luck. If he kept his name, they told him something to the effect that he will suffer from serious ill health later in life, he'll get a terrible wife, have weakly children, and never advance his career. They suggested he change his name to avert these travesties and proposed the name Jun I-Sum, which he did. I don't know how much he paid for their services, but he paid over $1000 to have his name officially changed.

Personally I think it is all hogwash and suspect that it is not much different from numerology or other such superstitions.

Then again, there is much to be said for a name. Would Oprah have been the success she is today were her name Mary-Sue? Would Madonna have been equally iconic if she was known by her middle Louise instead? Or if she hused her family name and was known as Madonna Ciccone?

In the Bible, names often carry meaning, usually describing the character of the person. Bible characters would sometimes undergo a name change. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Isaac. Simon became Peter. Saul became Paul. The name change often signalled a character change.

I once had a friend who were verbally and physically abused by her father. As an adult she decided that the negative associations with her name--her father always shouting her name--disturbed her, so she took up another name. She wanted a unisex name so we decided on Toni. With her new name, signifying a new start and a strong character, Toni was able to commence her journey of recovery after years of abuse.

Similarly, my younger brother who has a four syllable first name that people always mispronounce decided to shorten his name to a two syllable name. Later still, his friends adopted a one syllable nickname, Nate, which most people now use. While I liked the two syllable name, Nethan, I also like the name Nate. These days I see that he use different versions of his name, the original four syllable one, the two syllable one, and the one syllable one, in different situations, to good effect.

I'm sure that my own name also had an influence on who I am today. My real names are proper English names. However, our nanny gave me a Sesotho / Tswana name, which ended up becoming the name my family used. I grew up with an African name, which always made me stand out within white contexts. I'm sure this must have had an influence on how people treated me, and how I interacted with people. (If you want to know my name, you can see it on my poetry blog: Ingelegde Lywe.) In Korea my name is very similar to a common Korean name 상국, so that Koreans always ask me after I introduced myself to them if it is my Korean name, then I always have to explain to them, no, it is an African name, I am from South Africa. It has become such a trite routine, that I am shocked when it doesn't happen. Since my name sounds Korean I have opted to use 이상구 Lee Sang-Goo as my Korean name.

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While I still think that the Korean Sound Name Wave Institute is a sham, I agree, that there is much to be said for a name.

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