Korean names are generally composed of three syllables. When names are written in Korean, the family name goes before the given name, as opposed to in many Western cultures where the family name comes at the end. For example, in the case of Bae Yong-joon (a famous Korean actor) ‘Bae’ is the family name and ‘Yong-joon’ (Yong Joon) is the actor’s first name. Those who are unfamiliar with Korean names may ask if Joon is a middle name, but there are no middle names in Korea. Another point of difference is that the same name is rarely passed down from one generation to another.
Most Korean family names are only one syllable. There are approximately 250 family names in Korea, the most common of which are 'Kim,' 'Lee,' 'Park,' and 'Choi,' which account for 50% of all family names. Some family names are two syllables, like 'Namgung,' 'Seonu,' and 'Sagong,' but these kinds of names are very rare. Most given names are two syllables, but some can be one or three syllables.
Every name has a meaning
Korea has its own alphabet called Hangeul, but many names are based on Chinese characters. In recent years more and more people have been opting for Hangeul names. Since each Chinese symbol has a meaning, Korean names have deep significance. Many names made using Hangeul also have a meaning.
Let's use the example of Bae Yong-joon (배용준) again. Yong (勇) means ‘courage’ and Joon (俊) means ‘outstanding’. Interestingly enough, the name seems to fit the actor’s status as an internationally renowned star.
Many Korean people believe that a person's name can determine his or her fate. For this reason, Korean parents start thinking about their child’s name long before he or she is born.
Can a name change fate? Many people turn to naming specialists
Parents try to give their child a good name so that their child can live a healthy, happy, and successful life, but naming a child is not an easy task! Korean parents who believe that their child’s fortune is determined by its name often defer to naming specialists, believing that there are many factors to consider such as saju (the “Four Pillars” - the year, month, day and hour of one´s birth) and eumyangohaeng (the theory of yin and yang, and the five elements that constitute the universe).
Naming specialists say that "one cannot change one's fate, but good luck can be brought by applying eumyangohaeng during the naming process." Others say that trying to influence one’s fortune and naming a person according to Oriental philosophy is an outdated practice. Despite these arguments, naming specialists enjoy a steady stream of customers.
Naming specialists usually decide on a name one of two ways: by finding good Chinese characters for names proposed by the parents or by suggesting two or three names for the parents to choose from. A visit to the naming specialist can cost anywhere from 100,000 won to a million won.
In today’s modern era, a variety of online naming sites have sprung up. There are also dozens of naming books on the market. Some parents find an appropriate name by studying these books; others ask highly educated, older relatives to come up with a name.
Trends in naming
Just as there are trends in fashion, there are trends in baby names. In the 1940s and 1950s, the most popular baby names for boys were Yeong-su (영수), Yeong-ho (영호) and Yeong-cheol (영철), and the most popular baby names for girls were Sun-ja (순자), Yeong-ja (영자), Yeong-suk (영숙), and Yeong-hee (영희). The names Sun-ja and Yeong-ja, which originated from Japanese names, are hardly used anymore.
These days, more and more people are choosing names based on Hangeul words. Names like Haneul (하늘, 'sky'), Iseul (이슬, 'dew') and Oejin (어진, ‘generous and wise heart’) are fairly common since they have a gentle sound and nice meanings. Another trend is the use of Western-style names. With the rapid progress of globalization and increased interaction with foreigners, more and more parents opt for English-style names like Su-ji (수지), Je-in (제인), and Yu-jin (유진) which are easy to pronounce but still have a good meaning when written in Chinese characters.