Learn all about Korean names
안녕하세요! (An-nyong ha-se-yo!) Hello! I'm Billy from GO! Billy Korean on YouTube. I've been asked a few times over the past year to talk about Korean names — what they mean, why they're structured the way they are, and why so many Koreans have the same last name.
I'll present here what I think is the most important information to know about Korean names.
Check out the video here, and read along the article below~!
What makes a Korean name?
Traditionally a Korean name has three syllables. The first syllable is the last name - 성 ("seong") in Korean. The next two syllables are the first name - 이름 ("i-reum") in Korean.
For example, let's take a look at the name 김철수 ("Kim Chul-su"). 김 ("Kim") is the last name, and 철수 ("Chul-su") is the first name. Remember that the last name goes first, and the first name goes last.
However, these days some people are breaking that tradition. There are many people with names that only have two syllables in them.
For example, let's take a look at the name 김구 ("Kim Gu"). 김 ("Kim") is the last name, and 구 ("Gu") is the first name.
These types of names aren't common (three syllable names are the most common), but they do exist and they're becoming more and more popular.
There are also some people who have names with more than three syllables. This type of name is the least common.
For example, let's take a look at the name 이루리라 ("i-ru-ri-ra"). 이 ("Lee") is the last name, and 루리라 ("ru-ri-ra") is the first name. Longer names like this one are chosen usually because they mean something in the Korean language. In this case, 이루리라 ("i-ru-ri-ra") comes from the Korean verb 이루다 ("i-ru-da") which means "to achieve," and the name means "will achieve."
What do Korean names mean?
Korean last names are passed from a father to his children, but first names are selected by the parents.
There are two types of names that a parent can select: Sino-Korean names, and Pure Korean names.
"Sino" means Chinese, so Sino-Korean names are names that come from Chinese characters. This type of name is the most common by far.
In order to make a Sino-Korean name, the parents will choose two Chinese characters that have the pronunciation of a name that they want.
For example, if my last name is 고 ("Go") and I want to name my kid 원빈 ("Won-bin"), then I will select a Chinese character for 원 ("Won") and a Chinese character for 빈 ("Bin"). There are thousands of Chinese characters that can be used for making a name, and there are dozens of characters that have the pronunciation of 원 ("Won") and 빈 ("Bin"), so I will have many choices. The two characters that I choose will give the name 원빈 ("Won-bin") a unique meaning.
Let's take a look at an example using the name 소영 ("So-young").
소영 ("So-young") isn't a rare name. You might know someone with this name. But each person you know could have different Chinese characters, so their names could have different meanings.
Here are two examples of using different Chinese characters for 소영 ("So-young").
소영 ("So-young") (素榮) --> [素 (흴 소 ["bright"]) 榮 (꽃다울 영 ["pure flower"]) 맑고 깨끗한 꽃과 같다]
소영 ("So-young") (韶永) --> [韶 (아름다울 소 ["beautiful"]) 永 (길 영 ["always"])은 늘 (항상) 아름답고 총명하다]
The first one means "bright and pure flower." The second one means "always beautiful and intelligent."
Both of these names have nice meanings, but the parents might prefer one over the other.
And you need to be careful when selecting Chinese characters for a name. Here is another 소영 ("So-young") using different Chinese characters.
소영 ("So-young") (瘙塋) --> [瘙 --> 종기,부스럼 ["skin disease"] 소 / 塋 무덤 ["grave"] 영]
This name would mean something like "get a skin disease... and die." I'd probably change my name if these were my Chinese characters.
And while it's not very common in America to change a person's name, in Korea it's fairly common. I have many Korean friends who've changed their name because they didn't like the sound of their name.
To select a good name with a good meaning, Korean parents will sometimes consult professionals for help.
What is a pure Korean name?
Not all names have Chinese characters for their meaning. There are also names that come from regular Korean words.
For example, let's take a look at the name 김마루 ("Kim Ma-ru"). 김 ("Kim") is the last name, and 마루 ("Ma-ru") is the first name. 마루 ("Ma-ru") is a word that means "peak of a mountain."
Here's another example: 박별 ("Park Byeol"). 박 ("Park") is the last name, and 별 ("Byeol") is the first name. 별 ("Byeol") is a word that means "star."
These pure Korean names are less common than Sino-Korean names. However, they're simpler to create because they don't use Chinese characters.
김, 이, 박, 최?
Why are there so many?
The most common Korean last names are 김 ("Kim"), 이 ("Lee"), 박 ("Park"), and 최 ("Choi"). There are also many others.
Why is this so?
A long time ago in Korea, only the upper class and royalty could have last names. Korean slaves made up around 30% of the entire population (!) and couldn't have last names.
In the late 1800s this changed. Korea went through a lot of social reforms, and everyone became able to have a last name.
Slaves who were now able to have last names wanted to choose one that set them apart from their past. They wanted last names that were associated with upper class, so they chose last names from previous ruling families in Korea. Korea didn't have that many ruling families, so most slaves ended up choosing the same last names - 김 ("Kim"), 이 ("Lee"), 박 ("Park"), and 최 ("Choi").
However, this doesn't mean that everyone with these four last names is related to slaves. There were already many people who already had those four last names before the 1800s. It's also possible that their ancestors are directly related to previous ruling families in Korea.
If you have any questions for me, you can also comment below this article. I love teaching Korean, and I'd love to help you.
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