Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Perfect Name: How One Mom Chose Her Baby’s Name the Traditional Korean Way

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 Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My friend Dee and I were talking about our kids when the topic on names came up. After hearing how she named her child I knew it was something that might be of interest to others as well. Fortunately she was kind enough to agree to share her story here on the blog. I hope you enjoy, and again thank you Dee! 🙂

The Story

“I was 8 months pregnant with my baby when the pressure of deciding on the baby’s name hit us. Surely many parents look forward to this part, but if you’re a month away from delivery and still haven’t picked a name, you’d know it is a head scratcher. I wanted a perfect name that would go nicely with a Korean surname but still neutral enough to have an English equivalent. I came up with a list that my husband approved but picking one was not easy and the more fixated I was on it the harder it became to choose. So while at my in-laws’ one weekend we happened to talk about what my baby’s name would be. Naturally, I was excited to share my list and to hear what my family thought of it. After reciting the names I waited for signs of validation or disapproval but there weren’t any of those. Just courteous head bobs while voicing out the names as if to test how well it went with their last name. There was that but no definitive comments. I was a bit disappointed thinking the names weren’t good enough for them. Then, my sister-in-law said that well, we wait for the birth date of the baby anyway. I wasn’t totally surprised when she said this.

I learned from my husband that the traditional way was to name the baby after he or she is born. In my head I was playing different scenarios as to why there’s a need for that. I thought, maybe they didn’t want to jinx the birth of their baby? But my random idea was quite far-fetched compared to the actual reason behind this tradition.

According to my husband the birthdate of a person is an important factor in picking a name. The date and the time of birth will determine names that will be suitable for the child.

So, it was like when my grandma picked my father’s name, I thought. My father was born on December 28 which corresponded to Innocents’ day in the Christian calendar, thus he was named Innocencio. I get that.

After telling us that we had to wait for the baby’s birth before deciding on a name, my mil asked me how we chose names in the Philippines. I told her that we come up with the baby’s name long before it’s been born. To which she asked back “How do you decide without knowing the birth date?” I simply told her that many parents already knew what they wanted to call their babies. It can be after a loved one, a biblical name, a popular English name, a celebrity name, or just about anything that’s meaningful to the parents. She squinted and couldn’t seem to comprehend what I just told her. (Of course it’s possible that she got lost in translation.)

I added that we needed the name for the birth registration at the hospital. I asked how they register the baby without a name. They said they do it after they come up with a name. So, the mom leaves the hospital with a nameless beautiful baby that one still called by its fetus name/nickname or tae-myeong. That broke my heart a little. Despite the cold reception of my baby list, I wasn’t swayed to change it. However, I had to know more about their naming tradition because it seemed important to my husband’s family.

My husband then gave more details regarding this matter. I’ve learned that they don’t simply decide the name based on what’s on the calendar but they actually consult with someone.

“WHO?” I asked.

“We go to a fortune teller, or a shaman,” my husband said.

I’m not a fan of horoscopes, that whole astrology thing, or feng-shui, or anything of the sort. This just made it a bit harder to side with their tradition. So, to enlighten myself even further, I asked some of my Korean friends about this tradition and they had a lot to say about it.

One friend’s name was given by a shaman that her parents consulted with. This shaman received information from my friend’s parents like their respective birth dates, names and the baby’s birth date up to the exact time he/she was born. In exchange for the perfect baby name, the parents will give a sort of “donation” to the shaman’s practice. Because a shaman is not supposed to receive payment, he would simply call it a “donation”. This “donation can range between 100,000 won to 1,000,000 (4000 pesos to 40,000 pesos) depending on the shaman’s popularity and how generous you are feeling.
Now perhaps you’re wondering who might be crazy enough to waste that much money on a baby name from a fortune teller. In this modern age, half of all the expecting couples in Korea will consult with a shaman for a baby name.

What’s in a name exactly? Why go the extra mile for a name that you can easily come up with? This is because Koreans believe that a person’s name entails a certain luck or fortune that ripples through the entirety of his life. Certain “karma” comes with every name so in order to live a successful, wealthy, long or happy life one must first bear a “good” name. In fact, some adults go as far as changing their names legally with the belief that their old names were hindering them from being the people they were meant to be. They would change their names in hopes of better career prospects, marriage prospects, business prospects, and so on. So, if you want a clean karmic slate for your newly born child, be prepared to shell out at least 100,000 krw (4000 pesos) for a couple of syllables that will apparently help your little one through a smooth sailing life.

What happens to those who just don’t have that kind of money for the perfect baby name? Well, there are websites that provide similar services for a cheaper price. For a small fee they will generate words that complement the child’s birth date. The words come with corresponding hanja characters (Chinese characters), description or meaning, and karma to go with it. It is up to the user which words to combine or just choosing one word or syllable. And so we decided to follow through with tradition.

Wait, what?

Yes, I decided to conform to tradition in the end. After due consideration, it was the logical thing to do. My baby is a Korean citizen after all, so having a Korean name is only appropriate. Although I had my very own list of baby names, I opted for one that was suggested by a search engine. Why? Because I’m a mom who knows none better than my urge to give the best to my baby. And if following this Korean tradition would ease the mind of my other family, then that’s something I could live with. Forget my dream of naming my baby Emily, or Emma or Sophia, or any other sweet little girl’s name. Because like all mothers I knew whatever I called my baby would sound perfect in my ears, and I call mine Jiyeong.”

How did you name your child? Any thoughts you’d like to share? Please let me know (which I will share with my friend) by sharing your messages in the comment section below.

26 comments

  1. I’m a long loooong way away from having a baby but I’ve never even thought about consulting a fortune teller! It’s a pretty good idea if you’re completely stuck on baby names but I guess if you don’t like the name you’re back to square one (and KRW 50,000 poorer :'()

  2. Thanks for the in-depth look at this! I’ve heard of the practice, but didn’t have much info on it, it’s really interesting to hear from someone a little more in touch with how names are chosen.

    I think it’s really cool that you decided to go with a Korean name for your baby. I’m sure that gesture won’t go unnoticed by your in-laws, and it will give your baby a very tangible link to their heritage 🙂 Jiyeong is a beautiful name, great choice! What is the meaning for those hanja characters?

    1. Thank you too! Glad you appreciated it! 😀
      Actually it’s not my story, it’s my friend’s story. She was sweet enough to agree to let me share her story here on the blog. I thought it was a fascinating story of the traditional way koreans chose their baby names, something people who like Korea would like to know.
      Btw, about the baby’s name, Ji means knowledge and Yeong means pure and clean ^^
      Thanks for reading!

  3. interesting read 🙂 my daughter’s first name means brave (I bled on my first trimester) and her second name means miracle (4 yrs in the making). then her nickname is Miel – means honey in French coincidentally, combination of her lolo and lola’s name (1st apo) 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing! I believe that a person lives up to his name. That is why, I think, we must be very careful in giving our children a name. It could be a blessing or a curse. Well, that’s just my thoughts. If we remember, it was God who changed Abram’s name to Abraham because he would be the father of many nations; Sarai to Sarah because she’d be the mother of many nations. And indeed their descendants became as numerous as the sand in the sea and stars in the sky! 🙂

  5. Nice entry! 🙂 I agree with you especially when you mentioned “I’m a mom who knows none better than my urge to give the best to my baby. ” -this captured my attention. I named my daughter Isabella (as I am a fan of the Twilight series) and her second name is Sophia (means wisdom in greek). Stressful ang naming ng babies. Sounds easy but it’s a real pressure for Moms. Just like you, I consider other people’s suggestions and comments but then again, it’s your child and I strongly believe that Moms know what’s best. *wink

    1. So sorry just saw this comment! Yes I totally agree! In the end moms know what’s best for their kids 🙂
      Oh super glad to hear that you liked it! Actually it’s not my story it’s my friend’s. I didn’t have to choose my kids’ names this way but she kinda had to go the traditional way. I found that way interesting and asked her if she could share here on the blog which she fortunately agreed to. ^^
      Thanks for reading! 😀

  6. Korean tradition is actually close to my paternal ancestors’ tradition. My dad’s named Nicolas because he was born during St. Nicholas’ feast. But the rest of the customs are interesting. I’m curious to ask my Korean brother-in-law about them!

      1. I know! Brother-in-law is a dentist living in Cebu. My father’s ancestors hail from Pampanga. I haven’t given the tradition much thought actually – it’s just through your post that I realised they named babies after birth! 😀

  7. I didn’t know korean baby naming is that intricate. 🙂 Very interesting. My hubby and I just had a lightbulb moment and from there we knew what our child’s name is going to be. Baby naming is such an amazing sacred experience

  8. We figured out that we had conceived on our honeymoon to Jeju-do, so all throughout my pregnancy we nicknamed our little one JJ. Similarly my father-in-law wanted to wait for our child’s birthdate and time to decide their name, but my husband and I decided otherwise. Though, my father-in-law had some say in our child’s korean (middle) name based on family lineage. We ended up giving them a first (English) and middle (Korean) name beginning with the initials JJ.

    1. Wow! it’s so cute that you gave your baby a nickname before your child was born! Glad to hear that you and your in-laws were able to meet halfway with the name. In the end everybody’s happy.
      Thanks for visiting and sharing your story! 🙂

  9. you’re welcome Jackie. I’m happy to share this story to everyone. ^^
    God Bless you and your followers and readers.

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