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Name game offers unique opportunity for obscurity
By Doug Young

AS the spring semester gets under way at the university where I teach, I’m once again confronted with an issue that seems to get trickier with each passing year.

That issue involves my ongoing quest to improve my written Chinese, and the constant challenge posed by a trend that has parents choosing increasingly obscure names for their kids.

My Chinese was far worse when I first went to Beijing in the 1980s, and yet it was quite easy for me to read and pronounce names back then. That’s because many people had very similar names, often with revolutionary themes incorporating characters like hong for red, or bing or jun for soldier.

Nowadays I struggle to read many of my students’ names on our first day of class, and many themselves don’t know the meanings of the obscure characters their parents have chosen for them.

This kind of naming trend is common throughout any society, and you can often tell a person’s age just by looking at his or her name.

One year while working as a tour guide in the 1990s in the US, I noticed that many of the retired women in my groups were named Dorothy, a rare name among young people at that time.

One later explained that Dorothy was the hot name for little girls back around the time they were born, made popular by the lead character of the same name played by Judy Garland in the 1939 classic movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

My sister’s name is Lisa, and I quickly discovered while growing up that was one of the most popular names for young girls in the 1960s and 1970s.

Similarly, my niece Emily often likes to joke that it’s useless to call out her name in a crowded room, since doing so would ultimately attract the attention of at least three or four girls of her age.

Naming trends in the US often follow a number of patterns. Sometimes the hottest names are based on popular celebrities, while other times broader trends might see surnames or older Biblical names become fashionable.

A list of the most popular American names for 2014 seems to reflect a Biblical preference for boys, with Noah and Jacob taking the No. 1 and 3 spots. Classical names also seemed popular for girls, with Sophia, Olivia and Isabella taking three of the top four spots.

China seems to follow slightly different trends, since names here are composed of individual characters and thus have more specific and easily recognized meanings than Western names. China’s mainland in the 1980s was an easy place to remember people’s names, since shorter names with just two characters were quite fashionable back then, breaking with the much older tradition of longer 3-character names.

What’s more, many of the 2-character names were very similar, often incorporating the kinds of revolutionary themes I mentioned above. Thus calling out the name Li Jun in a crowded room at that time was quite similar to the more recent Emily phenomenon, often attracting the attention of at least five or six young men in the group.

Fast forward to the present, where many Chinese parents seem determined to give their children names that are truly unique, which seems to be the major impetus behind this recent preference for obscure characters.

In the first day of my class last week, I stumbled over at least five or six names as I grappled with characters I’d never seen before. When I ask some students what their names meant, many of them simply shrug and said they had no idea.

I asked several workers at my local coffee shop how to pronounce one of the characters when I was trying to type it into my computer, and drew the same shrugs, as none of them had ever seen it before.

I’ve also had the occasional student with a 4-character name, which I’m told is another more recent invention by parents also trying to give their children unique names.

As a Westerner, I already had some difficulty remembering long new lists of student names each semester, and the growing popularity of these new obscure names makes the task even harder. Accordingly, I usually ask students to pick Western names that I can use in my classes, which are far easier for me to remember.

At the end of the day, individuality is certainly an important consideration when choosing a name, as everyone wants to feel unique.

But the latest trends seem to be going a bit overboard, and ultimately could end up leaving some children stigmatized with strange names that no one has seen before or knows how to pronounce.

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