Names That Ain’t Workin’

When I first arrived in Korea and ran across one of those names (I think it was Beom Seok (read: Bum Suck) and mentioned it to other teachers, I was horrified by the story I heard of some kid in a hakwon class whose teacher giggled at his name, which indeed was something that sounded like “Bum Suck”; push came to shove and finally, when the parents found out that the name brought, to English speakers, images of someone sucking on a bum, they changed their kid’s name. I mean, talk about trauma.

This isn’t an urban legend, as far as I know. It happened at the Wonkwang University Language center about a decade ago, just before I arrived. One of my friends swears that it happened, for real, and frankly it does sound believable, if also very sad. (I mean, unless the kid is going to live in an English-speaking country, what difference does it make what his name sounds like in English?)

Well, what difference, of course, except for the odd grin of an English teacher. Still, human nature being  what it is, one cannot help but mention such things.

I have two names that just ain’t workin’ for you today. One is from a student essay, and one is from the novella I was just reading as a break from all the reading I’ve had to do for work.

For all of you who thought that “Beom-seok” (read: “Bum-suck!”) was an unfortunate Korean name (when carried over to an English-speaking context)… I found an even more unfortunate one.

The name from the essay (on the iPad and the general problems of the Korean Web/Net) is 방석호, which in Roman letters is “Bang Seokho” — some guy who is quoted for his comments on the state of the Net I think it was. Except of course “Seokho” sounds a lot more like “Bang Suck-Ho” (which is how it was spelled in the essay) and to make it even better, when you put it in Western name order (personal name, family name) it becomes “Suck-Ho Bang”… and, one more thing, Korean students sometimes seem to think adding a comma between the names (as in Bang, Seok Ho) allows them to retain the family name-first order without looking odd in English sentences. And then sometimes they carry ity over even when they put the names in Western style, which gives us, “Suck-Ho, Bang.”

Which is something you shouldn’t name your kid if your kid is ever going to live as a kid in the English-speaking West. Nothing wrong with it in Korea, of course, but to English speakers, the name all but invites mirth. (Like the girl I used to hang around with whose name was Mi Seok (read: Me Suck).) These are among the only names I think a kid should replace with an “English name” in the English-speaking world , because it just sounds goofy enough in English that the kid is going to be teased and hurt unnecessarily.

The other name I have for you pales in comparison, of course. It’s from the novella “The Evil That Men Do” by John Brunner. There’s a young woman who is “neurotically shy” and “had practically no friends” (and who gets hit on by many guys and doesn’t respond) and who is discovered to harbor a bizarre fearful nightmare image in her mind of a white dragon emerging from a lair. (I won’t spoil the story for you further.)

In any case, her name is, well… it’s “Fay Cantrip.” Now, I’m not sure how this would have read in 1969, back in the days before AD&D, before Unearthed Arcana. Fay, I could have seen as a normal name, mainly because everyone’s heard of Fay Wray, though of course with that family name it becomes obvious she’s really calling herself “Fey.” Ugh, groan. And “cantrip,” though, that’s a word that for a certain subset of the population immediately brings to mind twenty-sided dice and the cover of (at least one edition of) Unearthed Arcana:

uaIn Unearthed Arcana, “cantrip” was the term newly introduced for the kinds of spells beginner wizards used to learn how to handle magic, essentially the sort of thing that goes awry on Mickey Mouse in the segment titled “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” from Fantasia:

But of course, Unearthed Arcana didn’t come out until the 1980s — and it’s how the word got into Magic: The Gathering card game, where plenty more people learned it. I may be wrong, but I’m guessing most people probably didn’t know that “cantrip” was even a word back in 1969, though it definitely was a word back then, and I’m curious where Brunner and Gygax alike would have come after it. I’m even vaguely suspicious they found it in the same source or sources. I seriously doubt the word would have the same effect o readers in the 1960s or 1970s as it does on readers with a modicum of SF/Fantasy knowledge today.

So it’s odd and interesting, showing that even such a thing as a character’s name can, because of a word’s use in pop culture, become unusable. (I don’t think anyone would name a character such a horrid pun as “fay cantrip” today, except as a complete and utter joke, and while obviously there was a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge going on in the Brunner, I am not thinking it’s likely most people would have gotten it, let alone perceived it as the kind of groaner of a joke that I did).

By the way, the intercultural name thing cuts both ways. George Bush’s first name was the subject of considerable giggling among elementary school boys since it could be pronounced as an analogue of one Korean slang word for the penis, and one teacher I knew said he’d been told his name sounded like some idiom for something quite off-color in Korean.

I wonder if anyone has compiled a list of names which sound funny across specific language pairs. That would be a fun wiki to start up online and have grow over the years — as long as idiots didn’t get into it and mess everything up!

12 thoughts on “Names That Ain’t Workin’

  1. Okay, it’s not cross-language, but at my old schoole I encountered a fellow who was named “Bruce Wayne Army”. That’s going to be the name of my new hardcore band, when I get around to forming it.

    Back on topic and also at the same school there was a grad student named “Li Chen,” whose username on the unix systems was, of course, “lichen”.

  2. In 1969 it would have been a reference to LSD. I had a classmate at that time that had the unfortunate nickname PSFT or permanently soft from tripping. I had no idea what cantrip meant until I looked it up.

  3. Of related interest, I have a Twitter friend in New Zealand who recently legally changed her name from 구영빈 (Koo Young-bin) to Sirianne Koo because of a lifetime of being teased about it etc. which you can read about here.

    Considering how innocuous her original name sounds at first, but which still caused her so much grief that she decided to change it, then I’d hate to think what a “Bum Seok” would have to endure in an English-speaking country!

  4. Heh, those are great examples, jbrandt and Doug.

    James, hmm, your friend’s post is quite… hmmm. I think the big difference is probably having the she did experience in childhood, as opposed to in adulthood. I think Young Bin is probably a less teasable name than “Bum Seok” — that is, I imagine some people might deal with “Young Bin” as a name in an Anglo country just fine, while probably no kid (EDIT: in the English-speaking world) could get through childhood with a name like Bum Seok and escape some serious emotional trauma.

  5. Also, someone should tell Sirianne that most Koreans don’t use British English, and that “bin” tends not to be the word for “garbage can” here. Or maybe I’ve not noticed.

    Also, I forgot to say something about my name in Korean… but I’ll make it a post of its own…

  6. Or the name Gay, which used to be less rare but is not used much now, for obvious reasons. (I know sveral gays, but only one Gay, and a lovely person she is.)

  7. I grew up with “fanny” as slang for “buttocks”.

    My father-in-law was amused for decades over having known a Mr. John Longbottoms who lived on Fanny Hill Rd.

  8. Oho… but now that I think about it, I do remember a kind of old-fashioned usage of “fanny” to mean “butt”… that’s where “fanny pack” comes from, right? (It’s supposed to sit on above the butt.)

    Funny it’s still in use. It seemed really old-fashioned when I was in NA.

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