Korean names are quite unique compared to the western world… when I first started to watch K-dramas the character names were fascinating to me! It took some time but I eventually figured out how they differ from Americans names. Today I’m here to explain the basics of Korean name usage…
안녕하세요! An-nyong ha-se-yo!
There are some basics to understanding Korean names that once you know will make deciphering the unfamiliar names a breeze! I’ve been where you are now #dazed&confused so I know exactly how you feel… Here are the three essentials you need to know…
Three Syllable Names…
Let’s use my favorite Korean star, 이민호 (Lee Min-ho), as my example… The first thing you see is that his name is 3 syllables. Most Korean names are three syllables which makes it pretty easy to see the different parts!
The first syllable is the last name… in our example, Lee Min-ho’s last name is 이 (Lee)! Last names are called 성 (seong) in Korean. There are a small handful of 2 syllable last names but these are extremely rare!
The next 2 syllables are the first name… So a close friend would call my favorite star 민호 (Min-ho)! First names are called 이름 (ireum) in Korean. While it is traditional for there to be 2 syllables for the first name some are breaking traditions to go with 1 syllable. You’ll see this on dramas sometimes… like on the show Hospital Ship the male lead character’s name is 곽현 (Kwak Hyeon).
Basically the first name goes last and the last name goes first!
No Middle Names!
If you didn’t notice above… there is NO place for a middle name like we have in the West! There is a tradition to share one syllable with all siblings while the other syllable is unique to the individual. These generational name syllables are shared by all members of the same generation of an extended family in South Korea. While this is not followed by everyone it is still practiced in some Korean families.
For example on The Suspicious Housekeeper the children of the family all shared a generational name syllable!
Eun Han-kyul, eldest daughter
Eun Doo-kyul, second eldest son
Eun Se-kyul, third eldest son
Eun Hye-kyul, youngest daughter
And on Return of Superman, Lee Hwi-jae names his twin sons, Lee Seo-eon and Lee Seo-jun. This is because they are twins!
(You can learn more about this custom, called dollimja, at Ask a Korean!)
So MANY of the Same Last Names
If you happen to know a Korean-American it’s a 50/50 chance that their last name is Kim! That’s because last names weren’t used by regular people for a long time… Only the upper class and royalty could have last names. When last names first came into use many times they were chosen by the region they lived or by whichever clan was most popular. Since Kim was the name for the oldest and longest dynasty of Korea, their population naturally grew quite large.
Today, Kim is the most common last name in Korea, and makes up a little more than 20% of the population! That doesn’t sound like a huge percentage but it equals roughly 10 million Kims… Other last names that you will probably run into are Lee (15%) and Park (10%). Between the 3 last names they make up a little more than 45% of the population.
If you pay attention to Korean stars as well as characters names in dramas then you’ll see there are a ton of other last names in Korea… They just aren’t common!
Some Other Name Facts!
-While formal language is confined more to the work place it is still generally considered rude to address Koreans by their first names. This is especially true with elders or those a year older than you. If you are the same age it is acceptable to use a person’s first name.
-Among adults those of similar status can address each other by their full name, with the suffix 씨 (ssi) added. For everyone else there are replacements that are used in place of the first name. For example, if a person has an official rank you address them by their rank. On dramas you will see characters address their bosses by President or Manager, often with the honorific 님 (nim) added.
–Korean women keep their last names after their marriage, but the children take the father’s last name. This is due to the traditions of the past where Korean women were conscious their last names were inherited from their parents and ancestors, and shouldn’t be changed.
Did you guess that “An-nyong ha-se-yo!” is basically hello in Korean?
Did you have any questions about Korean names?
Would you miss having a middle name if you were Korean?
Thanks for reading XOXO