Miss Yum and Mr. Bum Suck

Okay, okay, I know, it’s a cheap joke, and one all too common on cynical expat blogs. But please, wait, wait, hear me out!

Sometimes you really do end up with students in your class, or friends you meet in other ways, who have these names that are just, well… they’re things you can’t help but grin at, because you’re an Anglophone and because people should just not be named that sort of thing.

Like Miss Yum.

Okay, really, it was Miss Yeom, but it was pronounced yum, as in, what people say when they see food they want to eat. Or what a certain kind of guy would say when he sees a girl he wants to… well, you get the idea. (And Koreans innately get the idea too. A man who is given to uncouth comments, and who sees an attractive woman, might exclaim to his friends that she “would be delicious” and it’s a reference to her sex appeal. The word “delicious” is so often used in food that it’s obviously metaphorical. She was a very pretty young lady, very stylish and so on… meaning, the kind of woman you could easily imagine some guy grinning and saying, “Yum!” when he saw her.

Well, I’d been training my students to begin their presentations by introducing themselves in a formal manner, and on this one particular day, Miss Yeom stood up and said, “Good afternoon, I’m Miss Yeom and I’m happy to have this chance to talk to you about…” (etc.)

She asked me, at some point later on, why I was grinning at the beginning of her speech, and I honestly told her, “Well, I think when you introduce yourself, you ought to use your whole name. That is, say ‘Miss Naehwa Yeom,’ [NOT her real name] because otherwise, it sounds funny. It sounds like saying, ‘Miss Delicious’ [but I said that in Korean] which sounds weird when you introduce yourself that way. It’s not your fault, you have a fine and wonderful name in Korean, but in English it’s a little unusual-sounding, and you can avoid people being distracted by giving your full name.”

That was cool, she got it and thought it was funny, and made a habit of introducing herself in a less distracting or embarassing way. But sometimes, it’s not so easy. For example, one young lady I hung out with for a while, whose name was Mi Seok. Pronounced “me-suck”. Which, you know, is the kind of name that just summons up bad American military films about Vietnam. (“Me love you long time,” rings a bell.)

I never, ever told her about why her name might provoke giddy jokes, and it’s not just because we teetered on the brink of getting involved: I had the sense there was no point in telling her, and that it might just make her feel badly. I’d heard stories of kids being told their name, especially a name like “Beom Seok” (Bum Suck), was laugh-out-loud funny (in an unfortunate and demeaning way) in English. I’d heard stories of parents legally changing their children’s names when they found out.

Well, it’s one thing when you’re dealing with kids, of course, and usually I’d just ignore the cultural disconnect, or even some of the Korean-specific teasing. (Though when So Yeon, Sae Yeon, and Ji Hyun sat together in a row and a boy in class pointed out that they were So-Sae-Ji–which sounds exactly how Koreans pronounce the word sausage–I have to admit, it was comic brilliance and I never let that one go.)

But those of you out there, who teach adults, and who teach more than just language–who work on  stuff like intercultural communication, on business communication, that sort of thing: do you come out and explain why someone’s given name sounds incongruous to a Westerner? Do you spill the beans about how someone’s name sounds like an off-colour joke in English, like the invitation to suck on someone’s backside? What workarounds do you suggest? An English name? (I’m usually quite hostile to the idea of English names, but when someone’s name sounds like a dirty joke in English, it looks more expedient to me.) A contraction of the name? (Mi Seok becomes Mimi or something?) Do you just tell them and then insist they know the joke, but ignore it or laugh along and have a sense of humor about it, but keep using the name in all English interactions?

It’s a tough question, and I wonder whether most teachers have a policy about it, rooted in some kind of philosophy of cross-cultural respect balanced with expedience and so on, or whether people play it by ear, or just have an honesty-first policy… I’m really curious.

As for me, I definitely play it by ear, which is why I never tell little kids if their names sound like hilarious things in English, and why I only ever tell adults I think will (a) encounter people with whom this might come up, or (b) who seem likely to “get it” while (c) seeming unlikely to be overly hurt, offended, or distressed too much by the surprise.

How about you?

13 thoughts on “Miss Yum and Mr. Bum Suck

  1. I’ve got the same “policy” as you. I haven’t taught kids in nearly a decade, so that doesn’t come up on my radar ever anymore, but many of my uni-aged students go to Europe or the US/Canada for internships and such, so the topic of their name does come up when they come in to ask about “cultural advice” before they go.

    Thankfully, I’ve only had to broach the subject twice, and both times with students who “got it”.

    I never did tell that one housewife, though, that when she chose “Yummy” as her English name, it was probably a bad choice.

  2. LOL Yummy! Oh, that’s just unfortunate.

    I don’t know if I mentioend above, and am in a hurry, but yes, my policy also includes ALWAYS telling someone if it seems likely they’ll go abroad or interact with Anglophone Westerners (or actually any non-Koreans as who haven’t acclimated to Korea).

  3. I just tell them strait out that it’s got a funny meaning in English. But I do it with a deadpan voice so that it’s clear that I’m not mocking them.

    with 유소영, or 미석 I would be sure to tell them that there is some sort of sexual connotation, but leave it up to them to look on the internet to find it – not my job.

  4. Huh, I never considered “You So Young” to have a sexual connotation. You must be pervier than me. :)

    (Though it does mean something in English and I usually make a habit of punning innocently on it at some point to make the point.)

    Making it clear you’re not mocking is a must, definitely. Though I deadpan so much I have to straight out say, “I’m not teasing you, and of course I respect your name has no strange meaning in Korean. It’s a fine and good name, but you should know that in English…”

    And now that you mention it, having them look up the connotation is a good exercise. Depending on context, and the individual, and how obvious the pun is, I might do that. I think the determinant is how off-color it is: something innocent (like “Miss Yum”) I’d probably hint more strongly, or transliterate. Something more bawdy, I’d probably just hint, or say something about how, “You’re too young to know what it means in English,” or “Ask your foreigner friends, they’ll tell you.” There’s no way I’d actually explain the apparent implied English-language sexual connotation of a name like “Mi Seok” in front of a class — partly because it’s unfitting to my position, but also because it could be shameful to the student, where mere hinting allows everyone to pretend they don’t get it and doesn’t get the student anxious.

  5. In my classes, if they want an English name, they can choose and use whatever they wish, I don’t really care. Of course, that’s produced a few doozies over the years, but as long as it didn’t go further than the door, so what?

    When the students are going overseas or are getting a job that requires them to interacts with non-Koreans on a regular basis, or even non-regular, I let them know “Hey, you may want to (1) change your English name to something more suitable**, (b) use an English name if your Korean name will cause you some embarrassment or (c) use your Korean name if there’s nothing at all wrong with its connotation in English.”

    **No… President, Terrorist, Princess, and Superman are not appropriate for a hotel clerk.

    Poor Miss Yeom… I still laugh at this 50+ ajumma insisting on calling her Yummy.

  6. Darth Babaganoosh (?),

    (Eee! I had Babaganoosh last night! I am happy.)

    Huh. Usually I tell people I find remembering “English names” harder. Usually people say, “But Korean names are hard to pronounce.” Which by and large isn’t true. (Except in rare cases like “Ryun Gwon”, which anyway even Koreans sometimes struggle with.)

    Eventually, I’ll capitulate if someone *really* wants an English name, because why not call someone what he or she wants to be called. However, I would never call anyone President or Terrorist (or Yummy). I’d suggest that there’s a difference between having fun with something (“Call me Lee Chulsoo!”) and reducing it to a joke (“Call me So Ju-jan!” or “Call me Pok Tanju!”).

    That might be overly scrupulous of me, though. I just have this idea of the relationship people develop with a language they’re studying, and if I cannot get them to build a persona in the language using their own (real) name, then at least I try to get them to build a person based on a name and attitude that doesn’t turn it all into a cartoon. But then, I’m working with advanced students most of the time, so almost nobody ever even wants a name like “Orange” or “Whiskey” or “Flower.” The oddest I tend to see are the re-Romanizations of Koreanizations of Christian names among Catholic students. (You know, at baptism they get a “Christian” name? Some of the renderings, when they’re converted back to English, look very odd.)

    Those three options sound quite sensible. That reminds me of something else. Sometimes when a student is going to the West, I’ll suggest a different romanization of their name than they use. “Hui Yeong” is something most Anglophones, at least, will look at with puzzlement, but “Hee Young” is at least something parseable and something people won’t mangle every time. Though I rarely suggest anything than the standard romanization system for people in Korea — and have a pretty good tolerance for messed-up name romanizations, even to the point of accepting a few variations from a single student in a single semester (thank goodness for student numbers, though) — I find that using English-friendly romanizations is likelier to ease things when the student goes abroad.

    (In one case, some department office screwed up the spelling of a student’s name on her application, but since her visa application spelled it that way, she had to get a passport that did too… and by extension, it became her official name romanization. It was unfortunate because it wasn’t following any official romanization in Korea, past or present, *and* it was completely unparseable for Western readers.)

    Poor Miss Yeom indeed, though there are worse problems than hers. If the name had fit her less well, I’d feel worse for her. :)

    And as for the ajumma wanting to be called Yummy, I wonder if I could have resisted working “Yummy Mummy” into class somehow. :)

  7. I teach adult students and I have told some students that their names, pronounced in English, might have unintended meanings. However, I only really do this if I think they can handle it and if we’ve known each other a while. However, I am more forthcoming with suggesting changes in spelling that more accurately represent their names in English and, may, eliminate those unwanted connotations. One that I have pointed out numerous times is, Suk Mi/e. I usually recommend “Sook” when they spell it 숙.

  8. Gord, I don’t ever insist they take an English name. I don’t want to be the one dictating what they are called in class. I, too, find Korean names easy to remember (of course having multiple Sun-hees or Mi-suns makes it a little confusing).

    I let the student make the choice. As they are all uni-aged now, they all choose relatively innocuous proper English names (I did have one Princess last semester, so I just called her 공주 in Korean).

    Haven’t had to really deal with the issue in maybe a year, but by teaching Tourism and Hotel Management students I imagine it won’t be long before I have to address it again, new crop of sophomores and all.

    And I agree about the romanizations. Most are okay, but I also suggest more foreigner-friendly spellings if they are going to be working closely with people not familiar with Hangeul romanizations.

  9. Interesting. There are a lot of Yu Suk Me girls out there. On another note. Some of our European names could cause a stir. I worked with a girl whose sir name was “Jerkoff”. Everbody was subdued when they
    called her. They just let it pass. Heard of someone else called Professor Semen. How about someone with a sir name “Balls”. I was a tutor when I was at college and had to hold myself when some of these poor students came in to check their scores. Even had a student called Drakulich.
    There is a town in Holland called “Fuck”. Pronounciation isn’t the same as the one we are familiar with. The Sign on the highway with the name you would see before arriving gets stolen a lot.

  10. EFL Geek,

    Good post. Good points.


    I also suggest romanizations for names that are just easier for Anglophones to make sense of, or at least that follow one of the systems that exist. Like if someone write 회 as Heo I point out that this is standard for 허, not 회. I also habitually explain that Wha is a weird romanization for 화.

    What I find most interesting, though, is that people tend to stick to a romanization even when no Anglophones can ever make sense of it. This seems to reinforce the belief that Korea names are hard to pronounce, when in fact it demonstrates that Korean name romanization patterns are just all over the place.

    Another interesting pattern I’ve noticed is that the brighter the individual, OR the better at English (either one, not necessarily both), the likelier he or she will be consistent in romanizing his or her name. The less bright, or the worse at English, the more likely you’ll get a different spelling of the same name on every assignment.

    Darth Babaganoosh,

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply you were forcing English names on students or anything. Some schools do, some don’t. I think in principle English names are unnecessary and contrived. I find part of the point of language study to be learning about other cultures and integrating elements of them into one’s intellectual or imaginative repertoire. (So I think it’s truly better for Jin Sook to speak English while thinking of herself as Jin Sook, rather than “becoming” Jenny for the purposes of English.) I haven’t read any research on it, and I could be wrong, but I suspect fundamentally that using a foreign name while learning a foreign language underlines the foreignness, thus bosltering the perceived barrier between oneself and the language of study.

    As for romanization, yes. I also think that any Korean studying English *ought* to get a crash course in proper Korean romanization: I’m always surprised when my English students know less about the current system, or McCune-Reischauer, than I know. (Silly, I know: why would they know about it? But they need to, for English-language essay-writing and so on.)


    Ah, yes, Jerkoff. (Soft J, I presume, like the Anglophone Y?) Those wacky Europeans!

    The surname Bolling (as in Claude Bolling) must also bring twitters among Anglophones, when spoken aloud. Why oh why did all the Euros I ever met have good, polite names like Luengo or Kreyszig? :)

    By Yu Me Suk, you’re writing 유미숙, not 유미석, right? I’ve met (er, taught) tons of *숙 (ie. 진숙) and 숙*_ (ie. 숙진) named women, but only one 미석 in all my years here.

  11. I forgot to add one of my favorite examples. My good friend Randy in American might meet with some snickers when introducing himself in other English-speaking countries :) I throw that one out there when I’m either talking about differences in Englishes or how names sometimes don’t travel well.

  12. Heh. Yeah, Randy’s an odd name when you’re in the British sphere. I also remember all my little kid students back when I first got here giggling when they heard George Bush’s name. Apparently “Joji” sounds like the Korean equivalent of “dink” or something.

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