How Some Koreans Name Their Kids

Why is it that coming up with boys’ names seems harder than coming up with girls’ names? We experienced this when it came to naming our son. Unlike with my first two pregnancies, my husband and I agreed that we should find out our third baby’s gender before its birth. My justification: Keeping a baby’s gender is one of the best mysteries of life that we can still have, but since I had experienced it twice and this would be my third kid, it was time for me to limit as many variables as possible.

Like many inspiration-less couples, my husband and I procrastinated coming up with a name. There were often conversations that started, “We have to come up with a name for this baby,” and ended, “Yeah.” Finally, I decided to grab the bull by the horns and started a tab called “Names” on my comprehensive Google spreadsheet entitled, “EVERYTHING BABY.”

Name spreadsheetThis is where I started to record every idea that we came up with that wasn’t a joke or a snide remark. We came up with twelve names. When we got to month nine, we started to analyse the data I collected. There were a few names that we eliminated from the get go. Even though we liked the names, we ran into issues such as picking a name that started with “V.” With one child named Vera, we didn’t want to deal with the incongruity of having two out of three kids with names that started with the same letter. We also didn’t want any alliteration in the kid’s name (e.g., Marco Marin – honk twice if you know who I am talking about), so names that started with a “K” or a hard “C” were also thrown out. We didn’t want names that sounded too different in German than they did in English (or vice versa) – or that would prove to be too hard to pronounce or butchered in English. Therefore, we eliminated any names starting with “J.” We then each rated all the remaining names from a scale of 1 to 9. Anything below a 5 was also thrown out since we couldn’t pick a name that the other one hated enough to rate lower than a 5. Finally we added all of the numbers together, and the name with the highest rating was the winner.

Except it really wasn’t.

That’s only half of the story since we also had to come up with a Korean name. We consulted a list we had received five years earlier when we were expecting our first child. Sticking to Korean custom, we deferred to the elders of my husband’s family to come up with a Korean name for our first born. His relatives in Korea kindly faxed my father-in-law a list of Korean names, both traditional and untraditional for girls and boys. We were able to find a name for our first daughter on this list. The name for our second daughter was also on this list, but I had already had that name in mind before confirming that it was already on there.

As for Korean boy names, once again, we really couldn’t find many options that spoke to us. A classic name with a meaning significant to us were all important aspects, but boring seemed to be the accompanying quality. None on the list represented the wishes, aspirations, hopes and love we had for our son. There were one or two typical names that we considered using and decided on one that seemed to be the most acceptable of the bunch.

So before we went to the hospital, my husband and I had agreed to name our child Benedikt/Benedict Ho-Yeon. Quite honestly, I don’t remember what spelling we agreed on. I do remember there was a debate on this too: German spelling, Latin spelling, more likely to be spelled wrong in America spelling?

That baby boy of ours finally came, and my husband shared the news of his arrival along with his name. My Catholic mother-in-law was delighted, thinking that we had perhaps named our son in the then Pope’s honor. That wasn’t actually the case. (The name Bendedict made it on the list because of a visiting intern at our German kindergarten.)

But soon after our baby boy was born, I started noticing how challenging his name was. The constant  clarification on how to spell his name despite having thought this through, the inability to pronounce his name properly – not sounding out the “t” at the end, and then a family member asked if we would be calling him “Ben.” That caught me off guard since I thought we had indeed thought of everything. I knew my son wasn’t a Ben though. It was becoming clear to me, in my heart and to my ears that our son wasn’t meant to be Benedikt either. This coupled with his mediocre middle name, I knew we had to do something while we still had time.

“Don’t be mad, but I actually think that we have to come up with a different name for the baby.” Mad was he not, but definitely annoyed was my grimacing beloved husband. Especially since he had to call all of our family members again to explain that, psyche, our baby was here, but he wasn’t really going to be called Benedikt Ho-Yeon. There were a few sighs of relief and a few subsequent calls with unsolicited suggestions from family members with alternatives. For the rest of the week my father-in-law jokingly answered the phone asking if we had changed the baby’s name again.

We hit the spreadsheet again and chose the name that was second on our list: Leonard, who would be called Lenny. Life made sense again and the stars were aligning.

That just left the Korean name to be decided on, and luckily, we had a lifeline left – a lifeline to my aunt in Korea’s fortune teller (jeom-jaeng-i) who consulted the stars according to the day and time of our baby’s birth. This was our aunt’s gift to us, with a right on our part to refuse just in case the name was a bit too crazy for our tastes. It was in fact perfect and that’s how Leonard Chang-Yeon came into this world.

Lenny as a newborn


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