Are Korean Names Backwards? (Biggest Differences)

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If you ever see a translated version of a Korean’s name, such as Lee Soong-jung, you may assume that the person’s first name is Lee. 

Unfortunately, you are incorrect as Lee is their last name. Their first name would be Soong-jung. 

This mix-up forces people from places like Canada and the US to think Korean names are backward.

Well, are Korean names backwards? They are, but only to Westerners. Having the last name first is perfectly normal and the correct way of doing things in Korea. 

This is because they hold fast to their traditions, albeit a very modern nation. So, the family name will always be first and then followed by the first name.

While there are some exceptions to this rule, it’s the most frequent method of naming conventions. 

Because most Koreans are aware of this cultural practice, they will alter their names when in English-speaking countries.

Let’s dive deeper.

About Korean Naming Conventions

The naming system in Korea is very much unlike anything you’ll find in Western cultures. 

While they do have first names and surnames, they don’t come in the same order. 

In fact, the surname is first, which then follows with the first name.

The first name is “ireum” and a “seongmyeong” is the surname. These stay together in writing or speaking, depending on age and status. 

For example, one of the biggest K-pop stars is Psy. His real name is Park Jae-sang. This means his last name, or “seongmyeong,” is Park while his first name, or “ireum,” is Jae-sang.

While his friends and others his age will call him Jae-sang, elders and those younger will call him Park Jae-sang. 

All Korean names are this way, comprising three syllables with the family/surname being one syllable and the first name containing two syllables.

Some Exceptions

While rare, some people will have first names with a single syllable and last names with two syllables. 

But, it’s important to note that they do not have middle names in Korean culture. 

Also, Koreans do not name their children after elders and deceased family members. They consider it inappropriate.

About the Family Surname

Traditionally, the family surname of any given child came from the father. But, this is changing.

Since 2008, it has become allowable to select either the mother’s or father’s family name. 

These surnames are very old and have an ancient lineage that traces back to the Three Kingdoms period when clans flourished.

Generational Names

There’s also a common practice for children to receive an additional generation name. 

This means that siblings born into the same family will have the same name included as part of their full name. 

For example, one girl may have the name Lee Hak-min while her younger sister’s name is Lee Hak-jung.

Nicknames

What’s more, in addition to an official name, parents and/or family also bequeath a nickname onto children at birth. 

These nicknames, or “amyeong,” can refer to a person’s birthplace or imply their mother in some way. 

It can also denote an astrological or other important event that occurred on the day and time of their birth.

Symbolism & Meaning of a Name

The meaning of someone’s name carries a lot of weight as well. This is because Korean culture values the importance of a name, and they believe there’s fortune, luck, or prosperity indicated by the arrangement of characters. 

This follows a person throughout their life. What’s more, the name bestows a family’s wishes and aspirations for the newborn.

So, many names translate to things like lotus flower, truth, river, wisdom, prosperity, virtuousness, and so on. 

Girls’ names tend to relate beauty, delicacy, softness, and concepts in nature. Boys’ names often revolve around strength, perseverance, courage, and bravery. 

The idea is to select the most positive and fortunate name.

Astrological & Numerological Connotations

Part of the name parents choose is also due in part to the day and time of a child’s birth. They also pay attention to the number of strokes it takes to write the name’s characters, as this also plays into the prophecy linked with a name.

Therefore, it’s quite common for parents to visit a shaman or priest for help in finding the best nomenclature. 

This is particularly true when they want the luckiest name possible to suit their newborn. Koreans believe this will bring the child what it needs to survive throughout its time on earth.

Spelling & Translating a Korean Name

There is another important thing to note about Korean names. 

While the romanticized or anglicized versions of their names will have spaces and hyphens, their names in Korean characters are not. 

They are all one seamless word.

Because these names translate from pictographic writing, they can translate to English in a myriad of ways. 

For instance, someone’s name may begin with Lee, but it can also spell as Li or Leigh. Unfortunately, Korean characters, called “hangul,” do not often translate perfectly into English.

English Names

In light of this, when some Koreans study or live abroad in Western nations, they will westernize their name to accommodate the culture or pick an English name. 

To illustrate, if someone’s name is Lee Su-min and they go to California, they may reorganize their name to Su Min Lee or opt to have the name Michelle Lee.

Doing so makes communication much easier along with filling out forms and performing daily tasks where there is a requirement for a name. 

When they return home to Korea, they go back to the standard conventions.

Conclusion

As you can see, Korean names are backward, but only when compared to how people write their names in the West. 

Technically, they are not backward and very much fall in line with the traditional method for naming children. 

This is mostly due to how old and ancient these family names are, coming from the times when clans dominated various regions.

About The Author

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Jason Park

Jason has been living in Seoul over 4 years and during that time, he has experienced a lot of the city's quirks and charms. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others who are interested in learning more about South Korea.

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