English Naming Gaffs: why your student is named Fork

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In China, it’s common for people to adopt an English name to use in English speaking situations or with foreigners. As the English teacher at my preschool, it has fallen to me to give new students an English name, and so I have had the privilege to name close to 200 students in the past year and a half. I often name kids after friends and family members, so I can send a picture to their namesake. You can tell which TV show I was into at one time or another by the plethora of character names popping up in certain classes (Community: Troy, Jeff, Pierce; Veronica Mars: Logan, Veronica; Parks and Rec: Leslie, Andy, April). One of my friends has a class with students named Han, Leia, Luke, and Obie, as well as Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

When I first arrived in China, I asked a friend of mine to give me a Chinese name. He named me 林沐恩 Lin Mu En, meaning “immersed in grace” and I’ve had many Chinese people tell me how beautiful it is. As an English speaker, I have no idea what names sound good in Chinese (which was why I asked my friend to give me a real Chinese name), and, likewise, Chinese often do not have a feel for English names.

When I’m naming my students, it’s usually not a problem. It’s when the parents insist on naming their own child that you run into interesting English name gaffs, and it’s more common than one would think to meet Chinese with bizarre English names.

There are three categories these odd names can be separated into. The first is when a Chinese person directly translates their name to English. Each Chinese name is unique, and parents spend a long time deciding which characters to put together, and the meaning behind their child’s name. Because of this, Chinese expect English names to hold similar depths of meaning, and while our names do have meanings behind them, the emphasis is not as much on meaning as it is in Chinese. This first category fits names like Ocean, Ice, Winter, Rabbit, Sunshine, Lucky, Sunnybaby, Dragon, Cherry, or Honey, which sound nice in Chinese, but extremely weird (and inappropriate) in English. Recently, I had a poor two year old boy whose parents named him Angel, and no matter how many times I tried to tell them it was a girl’s name, and not a good one at that, they still insisted.

The worst mistake I ever made was a few months ago. I named a two year old Gary, only to have parents day the next day, and when I announced this student’s name to be Gary, the mom looked at me and said “but she’s a girl”. I stared back at her in horror at my mistake, and she then proceeded to demand that the girl’s English name was “Smile”.  There was no way for me to argue after that.

The next category can be classified as names that sound good to Chinese speakers, but aren’t actually English names, and sound either Japanese or Spanish. I’ve had students named Miko, Chika, Yuna (as pictured above), Tintin, Cece, Jojo, and Yoyo (as pictured above). In the Chinese language, a repeated syllable makes something sound cute, and parents often choose names like the last four for their kids. I’ve had a number of Chinese coworkers ask me to give them an English name, and when I gave a few suggestions, they vetoed all of them (Kaitlyn, Misty, Emily) telling me “give me a name that sounds nice”. I wanted to respond “I think you want a Chinese name, not an English name, because these names sound very nice in English,” but I refrained myself.

I once named a student Paige, only to have her mom come back the next day and tell me to give her daughter a different name, because, and I quote, “Paige sounds too much like ‘pee'”. I stared at her, and barely refrained from saying “tell that to the hundreds of thousands of girls named Paige in the US”.

The third category can be described as the names that you have no idea where they came from, such as Fresh, Fork, and Long. The first two, the students just thought the words sounded cool, despite their meanings. “Long” is the Chinese word for Dragon, and somehow it didn’t get translated. Luckily for Long, the unstranslated word for dragon is also an English word and happens to sound incredibly weird.

One of the more ridiculous stories of naming mishaps came from one of my friends, who came across a high school boy named Zex. When she made him change his name, he decided on Zero (which he pronounced “tseh-roh”). She decided not to argue, as anything was better than the original name.

As I’ve learned more about the Chinese language and culture, I’ve come to understand where these naming gaffs come from. While often incredibly funny and confusing, I can also have compassion, as I know if I were forced to choose a Chinese name I would have no where to begin. Every aspect of living here is a cultural experience, even the names of the people you encounter.

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