“What does his name mean?”
Every time I tell a Chinese person what my baby’s name is, they invariably reply: “What does it mean?”. This question reveals a very obvious difference in the way Chinese and Western people choose names for their children, and I think it is a very interesting difference.
In western countries, we tend to choose names from a pool of existing names and most of those names have been around for a long time. We choose names based on how they sound and we don’t mind that there are other persons with the same name. In most cases, names are not chosen for their meaning. For example, my Classic Greek teacher in high school once told us that he didn’t understand how the name Alexandra could be given to females, when it literally means “to drive men away”. For most names, we don’t think about their original meaning anymore. Marta, my name, comes from Aramaic and meant “lady/mistress of the house” (“mistress” as in the female form of “master”). I don’t think my parents were thinking about this meaning when they chose it for me!
But in China it’s different. In China, there isn’t a predetermined list of given names to choose from. Parents can select any existing Chinese character for their child’s name. Some parents want their baby to have a unique name and choose such an uncommon character than it is not included in the standard computer’s language pack (and, also, most native Chinese speakers might not know how to read it as they may have never seen it before). It is also interesting to note that there are very few surnames in China compared with other countries and almost 85% of the population shares only 100 surnames, so the parents that choose unusual characters might be trying to avoid that their child shares a full name with someone else. However, for other parents this is not a priority and they might choose a character that is popular lately. According to this graph I found, in recent years 子 (son) and 轩 (high) are two popular characters in boys’ names, and 雨 (rain) and 涵 (include, contain) are often chosen for girls.
In Spain, the most popular names in recent years are a mixture of traditional and new names. For boys, in the traditional side there are names like Lucas, Mateo or Marcos, all of them biblical names but that were not popular when I was a child; also traditional are Carlos, Antonio or José, but these have always been popular. Some of the new names that are now trending in Spain are Izan (which seems to be a “Spanishized” version of Ethan), Liam (which has never been a name in Spain) and Enzo (same situation as Liam). For girls, Lucía has been the most chosen given name for years, María is also still very popular, and traditional names like Jimena and Candela that only grandmas had when I was a child came back in full force in recent years. Some popular new names (or at least they sound new to me) are Vega and Alma.
So, when Chinese people ask me what my baby’s name means, I just tell them it was the name of a Catholic saint. I’m not a practising Catholic anymore, but I like traditional names.
If you are interested in the etymoloy of names, check out Behind the Name!
Chinese names are hella complicated! My parents didn’t even name me, they took me to a feng shui man haha. I guess it was a good choice because I’ve been pretty lucky in life so far!
Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
Oh yes, I’ve also seen the fengshui naming services advertised here, hehe. Choosing a name is a big deal!
Interesting post, Marta. I had no idea your name was of Aramaic origin. I find it amusing that Liam is a popular name in Spain now, though I thought Enzo was Spanish. Great photo of your kid.
Enzo is Italian! I personally don’t like “foreign” names for Spanish people because I think they sound weird with Spanish surnames. Like… Liam González or whatever.
OK, I had no idea it was Italian. I do remember there was a Uruguayan footballer called Enzo Francescoli. I agree it’s strange to use an English name in Spain for a local. I wonder if the pronunciation changes?
Hahaha, maybe they pronounce it as if it was Spanish… which makes it even worse xD
Haha, yeah, that would be funny. There’s a well-known Colombian footballer called James Rodriguez (who played for Real Madrid), whose first name is pronounced “Ha-mes.” Would that be one of these cases?
WTF. I didn’t know his name was pronounced like that hahaha. Yes, perfect example xD Another option would have been to pronounce it correctly and then write it a la Spanish: Yeims xD
Ha, yeah, I was confused when I first saw his name then heard how it was pronounced. Interesting that it’s actually spelt as “Yeims”.
Catalunya has a lot of saint names too. All spelt differently of course to the rest of Spain! So many Juans, Jordis, Xavis, Marias, Anas. As for the UK I have no idea what names are popular now. All I know is non UK English spelling of names are nicer. I like it here when they spell my name ending in y, though so many think I’m a Natalia. Born at the time of the nativity. My Mum just liked it from the actress Natalie Wood back in the day! I also like that the French, Italians and Spanish pronounce my name as I do. Natalie with a T or Nat with a T. Most UK and America speakers skip the T or in the UK add a very soft t it’s almost not there. And if I was to mispronounce their name……
Na-alie? haha! Yes, I would also pronounce your name a la Spanish… with a strong t like in Natalia.
Yes, with a strong T please! And yes, I’m Natalia too here!
Everyone asks about my kid’s name, too. Only a few of them ever figure out the writer I named him after.
Almost none of his Chinese relatives ask about his Cantonese middle name, though. Maybe they figure that because I’m white he doesn’t have a Chinese name.
Baby A. has a Spanish name but it is not very common and some people in my hometown asked my mum if it was a Chinese name, hahaha.
Here people are unable to pronounce correctly his Spanish name so he also has a Chinese name, although it’s not official. Only the Spanish name appears in the passport. No middle name! He has enough with two surnames xD
Two surnames is a lot. I told myself Baby D would get a jump on learning the alphabet in order to simply write his name.
We had never that Chinese asked what his name means as we gave both kids way too many names including a Chinese name. However in Germany people often asks us what his Chinese name means 😂
Oh yes, I’ve also been asked what the Chinese name means. Funnily enough, my husband chose it but it totally sounds like a girl’s name because one of the characters is almost always used for girls and the other is used for both genders. Oh well. I told him (even I, a foreigner, knew it sounded like a girl’s name) and he insisted.
Haha maybe your husband had some hope for a girl! Just joking
At least there is no 美 in the name! By now I know way too many Chinese living in Germany and Finland with such name and even giving it to their daughters.
To be honest I always forget how to write my kids name in Chinese characters even though I have at least Nathan’s name (Yiran) as a tattoo on my back (Nathalie was supposed to follow this time in China but well, too many “things” happened so we had no head for it)
美 seems to be very common for Chinese abroad or for people with Chinese ancestry, but not common in China now!
So far all people i know with 美 in their name are from the countryside. Somehow I got the feeling that the name is still fairly popular there, as I even know some elementary students with these name from around Sichuan and shaanxi countryside
Pingback: Lost in Translations (#233) – When West Dates East
Names are such a great topic. Here in Thailand, most folks are not called by their given name, they have nicknames. And they can span from a traditional Thai name like “Fah” or “Nam” to an English name “Beam” or “First” – and as you can imagine, the English names can be quite ridiculous like God or Beer or Pepsi.
I’m glad that my name is Hawaiian, has a beautiful meaning, and is easy for Thais to say :P
Hehe, we also have ridiculous English names in China! I’ve met a girl named Banana, another one named Demon… Oh well.
I didn’t know Lani is Hawaiian! What does it mean?
Sky or heaven :P