During my first year in China, I taught children at a training school, and occasionally those kids would come in with some fairly off-the-wall names. While it was novel at first, the thrill of having a student named Watermelon or Seven in your class would eventually subside, and you’d just pack away another “China story” to tell the folks back home. Then, one day, a father brought his son into the school for the first time, and as I talked with him, he casually mentioned his son’s newly acquired English name.
Student’s Father: Teacher Bo, my son’s name is Semen.
Me: Ah, you must mean Simon. It’s a common pronunciation problem, my friend. There is no possible way that you’ve just named your son Semen.
Teaching Assistant: No, no, Bo. He said Semen, not Simon.
Student’s Father: Yes, his name is Semen.
Me: Just curious, why would you name your son Semen?
Student’s Father: You know, like David Seaman, the English footballer who played in the Premier League in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Me: Ah! Well, now I feel like a jerk. Honest mistake. You still can’t call your kid Seaman or Semen though. Henceforth, your little one shall be named Simon. Let us put it into stone and rejoice and sing it from the mount.
Moral of the story—For little Simon, I have irrevocably altered the trajectory of his English-language life arc for the better. Alas, my good deed will probably go unnoticed, but I can go to my cold, unforgiving grave knowing that I prevented a little Chinese boy from being called Semen.
While this is an extreme example, it’s interesting to think about why Chinese have such a bountiful cornucopia of crazy English names. Although most of the time in the China expat blogosphere this topic descends into one big Crazy English Name Jamboree, I’ll try to dig a little bit deeper into the jumble of vowels and consonants to examine the underlying causes and potential implications of this phenomenon.
Finding the perfect name
So, why do Chinese people pick an English name at all? From a brief, informal, not-at-all-scientific survey of my Chinese friends and colleagues, the consensus seems to be that everyone is aiming for a unique name. It’s a noble intention and many Chinese pull it off quite well. Names like Kylie or Hunter or Lena or Abbot aren’t exactly common names, but they’re also not ridiculous and don’t sound like someone simply threw a dart at their dictionary and picked whatever turned up.
What I noticed from my remarkably amateur surveying skills is that, for most Chinese people, they either get their name at a very young age—from either their parents or a good-natured English teacher—and don’t have much control over it anyway, or they try and pick a name later on in life because it will be useful in their work. The latter is usually where you’ll find the really outlandish names. They want to be unique, and in a nation of a billion something people, that’s an understandable, if not somewhat quixotic, goal. Really though, do you want everyone to remember you because your name is iPad?
好听 (It sounds good)
Proving that not everything is life needs a complicated answer, many of my Chinese friends told me that they picked their English names simply because they liked the sound of it.
Alternatively, several of them said that they had a particular affinity for a word in Chinese and decided to stick with the English translation, regardless of whether it can be used as a proper name or not. This is probably why you’ll occasionally run into Chinese girls with names like Pretty or Beautiful or meet Chinese guys named Hero or Huge Muscles.
Also, there are a surprising amount of names that translate fairly well between Chinese and English, to wit: Lily for 丽丽 (li li), Ally for 艾丽 (ai li), and David for 大为 (da wei). These are all perfectly reasonable and acceptable, and therefore fairly boring, so let’s move on.
A rose by any other name…
This is piggy-backing off of one of the ideas discussed in the book/blog/movie, Freakonomics. In their book, Steve Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner talk about the socioeconomic patterns of naming children, specifically whether having a typical sounding “black” name in the United States, like Roshanda or Shaniqua can hinder ones upward social mobility due to institutional prejudices. (Their conclusion was “no, but sort of”, by the way).
While this is certainly a loaded hypothesis, and is greatly influenced by racial discrimination quite specific to American history, the core idea itself—fancy name: “nominative determinism”—is worth mentioning in our wacky Chinese people’s English names thesis. That is to say, if your name is Peach Fuzz or something equally unique-but-ridiculous sounding, it must affect your career prospects, especially if you plan on working in a foreign company. In a business setting, any person, foreign or Chinese, who has a reasonable command of the English language, is just not going to take you very serious. It’s a thin line Chinese walk between trying to have a strong, unique English name and stumbling over into the absurd enough to hurt their employment options.
Then again, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. There is that singer in Hong Kong name Angelababy and she drowns in a sea of money every night, so maybe MoonKnight Chen might just be the next big thing.
Is this all even necessary?
With more and more foreigners working in China and many more learning to speak Chinese in order to play Chinese ball, are English names for Chinese people even going to be that necessary in the future? In a distance corner of modern China I hear some foreign dude saying “Chinese names are too hard to remember!” How about this? We just stop being jerks and remember their Chinese names. It’s, at most, four syllables!
Let’s just all make it more culturally acceptable that Chinese people have Chinese names, even when dealing with foreigners. “But, they already have English names,” you say, “Of course, I’m going to remember that one!” Fair enough, but there is no reason to expect the 55-year-old sales manager at an SOE to dreg up some English moniker he’s never used just so you can remember his name.
In case anyone out there is offended, this article is meant all in good fun. Wherever different languages and cultures intersect, there are bound to be some differences of opinions between sides on what names are considered “proper” or acceptable. And though I didn’t get a chance to mention it above, this “crazy names” phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Chinese choosing English names. I’ve known plenty of foreigners here that have chosen similarly outlandish Chinese names (I’m looking at you Mr Yi Ersan…). So no hard feelings, okay?
Now then, let the Crazy English Name Jamboree begin! I’ll start. Here’s a top five of my all time favorite unusual English names I’ve heard in China:
1) Semen (see above)
5) Blues (“like the music”)
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Keywords: Chinese people’s English names Chinese people choose English names
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There are a lot of reasons why someone may find it easier to choose a Western name - it is easier for westerners to pronounce and remember Western names. Having a Western name can thus speed up the process of getting acquainted with people from the West. But I'm sorry to hear that some people might see it as a loss of identity! It doesn't need to be that way - some people find that a western name can be used as a tool simply to interact with Westerners. And a Western name can also help you shield your Chinese identity from westerners who do not understand your traditions, culture, and the meaning behind your name. There are websites that cater to this, for example the Chinese site https://www.westernname.cn where you choose your year of birth, gender, and a western country to find names that fit where you will be living, going to school, or doing business. The site delivers the most popular names based on those choices. Hope it helps!
Dec 18, 2020 03:02 Report Abuse
Well having been here some 5 years soon have heard and seen a bit, worked in Urumqi a while , 2 stick in my mind apart from the usual stuff, had a boy called crapper !! apparently due to an absent father who was a persistent gambler ( craps ) in Macao, although a necessary daily function not an ideal start in life, and a girl with long wavy hair who used to hide her eyes behind it so I could never see if she was paying attention called Boolocks.... made me cringe when I had to say its Boolocks ......poor kids
Dec 05, 2015 13:58 Report Abuse
All Chinese names have meaning, for difference of most English names don't mean anything else but 'name of the person'. That's why Chinese all pick regular English words as their English names. Wat abot dat? I met Ozz guy with name 'Benn'. He had to change his name, because of the meaning of his original name in Chinese. I tried to name Chinese with 'Big Ben' several times, but strangely none would go for the famous spot.... Mod: "word 'operation' at your edit message is misspelled! Your Englo word is 'opearation'...."
Dec 05, 2015 09:02 Report Abuse
Names do have meaning - there are whole websites devoted to them for parents (with slightly more imagination other than choosing a popular 'celeb' name) who want to choose a name for their baby. For example, the name 'Angus' means 'Exceptionally strong'. 'Alan' means handsome and so on. It is just that the origin of these names are not remembered on a daily basis, or are as 'in your face' as some Chinese names.
Dec 05, 2015 20:35 Report Abuse
English name Allan could mean 'space ship' in English, but most Chinese wouldn't understand that, and they would prefer to be named 'Space ship', because they can get 'reflection' in their native language, and they can't get anything from name Allan. On another example, they'd rather be named 'Exceptionally strong' than 'Angus', because there's no translation for Angus in Chinese. I'm just guessing. I don't speak Chinese, so I wrote 38 just out of my head. I don't see Chinese as strange, because they name themselves 'Bacon' and similar, as posters on this thread are implying. If I would have student with name Angus, I'd certainly suggest adding 'beef', and I would explain meaning of the name similar as Beijing duck. Smileys here! I generally explain funny English names to students, and suggest change. Many posters here should 'step into Chinese shoes' more often.
Dec 05, 2015 22:34 Report Abuse
My students have English names to complete their immersion when they're studying English, for the same reason I've got a rather silly Chinese name. But I've had some awesome names: 1:Dreamtime Skybroker 2:Chickabitty 3:Britdam (After Britney spears and Adam Lambert) 4:Darth Vader (9 year old girl and self named) 5: Obama, Putin, Churchill and Hitler (four boys who sat together. And, yes, Hitler did understand the controversy of his name, and regrettably was comfortable with it.
Dec 02, 2015 12:18 Report Abuse
Chinese names aren't very creative, everyone is a Xiao DanDan or some other ridiculous little "cute" name- at least their English names are hysterical. I've had some named Kaka, BabysBreath, Stone, Love, Night Blindness J, Vampire, and gun. These were university students..
Dec 02, 2015 06:34 Report Abuse
If you are introduced to someone, surname Li (pinyin: Lì) without getting to see the character in their name, is it 郦, 酈, 栗, 厉, 厲, 莉, or 利? These are all pronounced exactly the same, with the same tone. I am not an inexperienced westerner, I'm stating a very valid point. You can, and I have, meet different people with different characters, PRONOUNCED EXACTLY THE SAME. It's like meeting Stacy, Staci, and Stacie. "Go talk to Stacy" "Which Stacy?" Stacy with the Y, I, or IE?" "Um, big Stacy" "Oh, you mean the fat one?" "No, the older one" "I can't tell which one is older." "Just call out big Stacy" Seriously, noone else has had an experience like this?
Aug 05, 2013 18:27 Report Abuse
Atom, Rabbit, Apple, Pete(fart in Chinese),dolphin. Hummel was my husband's English name before he came to America, it was the name of the general from "The Rock". He had is name changed by an American guy he knew to Bob because his Chinese name started with a "B" because people could say his name right and then settled on Robert because he didn't like Bob.
Jun 06, 2013 08:03 Report Abuse
I am pretty much under the belief that they can chose whatever name they want and I really don't care about how much anyone teases them later. I knew this one girl named Spooky, it was given to her by her English teacher. I must say she was!
Jun 02, 2013 10:35 Report Abuse