What’s in a name?


I regard a name as the first and most important gift a parent can give to his/her child. As such I believe it is of the utmost importance to put in the appropriate care and effort in selecting one.

I set myself a couple of general rules in selecting my children’s names, listed in order of importance.

  1. It must have a “meaning”. For example, a name can represent the kind of person the parents hope that their child will become. As the Chinese saying goes, 人如其名 – person(ality) just as the name (means).
  2. It must sound good and easy to pronounce. The converse is true as well. It must not sound stupid.
  3. It must not have any negative connotations. If it does, the poor child will be the target of jokes and pranks for their entire life…and its all the parents’ fault.
  4. It should not be excessively common. It is confusing to go “which <insert name>” when the name is called.

And this was why it took me a month of research before I decided on my children’s names.

A Chinese name

I am racially Chinese (but not from China) so having a Chinese name is a no-brainer. Picking a good Chinese name however, can be quite a challenge. There are additional optional criteria, simply because we are a superstitious lot.

  1. By Strokes 五格数理(Traditional script): Chinese characters are written in strokes and can be classified by the number of strokes. A good name by this criteria follows the belief that there are auspicious combinations of strokes. There are 5 combinations of character strokes that supposed determines personality and luck.  A bad combination might mean a life of troubles.
  2. By Element 五行、属相、星座: In Chinese culture (superstition if you will), we believe there are 5 elements (Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth). The amount of each element in a person is determined by time of birth and that is why it is not uncommon to hear of auspicious hours to give birth in. Some people go to the extent of doing a C-Section to force their kids out at a good time. Personally I believe that might mess things up instead. Anyway, in this naming belief, the name is used to balance the elements in a person. As such, each Chinese character is associated with an element and the general idea is to go for a balance. Supposed this also affects personality and luck.

I followed both these criteria not because I truly believe in them but it helped narrow the search significantly. Counting all the oddball variations, we have at least 80000 characters though only around 2000 are in common use. Finding a good combination without additional rules to narrow it down can be daunting. In any case, as the Chinese saying goes…宁可信其有不可信其无 (It is prudent to believe something is there than not). “Might as well”.

Some people also like to use a common character for siblings, usually the middle one. That dropped my list of usable names to zero, so I had to drop this rule…

In my own search, I used this website for cross reference. (http://www.meimingteng.com/)

An English name

In modern society, it is necessary to have an English name, or at least a name spelled out in alphabets. While Chinese can be romanized, the pronunciation of Chinese names by non-speakers can be quite excruciating, by personal experience. In a global economy, the last thing parents will want is to have their child penalized by an unpronounceable name.

For my kids, I picked their Chinese names first. Then based on the meaning of the Chinese names, I selected the English names that is closest in accepted meaning, while keeping in mind the 4 general rules I set for myself.

If religion is a concern (on either side of the coin), then that should be taken into consideration as well.

There are many websites that document the meanings for reference, such as this one (http://www.babynamespedia.com).

Things to avoid in a English name

  1. Dictionary words. There is a hilarious trend of people picking commonly used English words as their names. From the weather…”Rain”, “Cloud”…to numbers “Eleven”…to verbs…”Super”…I can tell you the first impression people get when they see this, is a big WTF. In my rule book, such names break anywhere from 2 to all of my rules. Seriously…don’t
  2. Fantasy names. Some names from movies, stories belong to this category. Call your kid Voldemort and the world will know his parents are “Harry Potter” fans, and he will be the subject of “He who shall not be named” jokes forever.
  3. Joined verbs. Because one dictionary is not enough, there must be two? Parents, your child is not a “My Little Pony”.
  4. Very long names. Self explanatory. Even the gnomes from the Dragonlance fantasy world have to have their names shortened to be pronounceable.


So yeah, do yourself and your kids a favor and give them a good name. You don’t want them to glare at you every time over the dinner table, thinking “I hate you for giving me this name”.

And that is my 2 cents on this matter.


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