Why is Your Name Winston?

October 23, 2007

I have a theory that if I went through a database of American males under the age of 40 and, looking only at their first names, sorted out the Gilberts and Godfreys, the Howards and Hamiltons, they'd all be Asian. Pretty much.

And actually, most of them would be Chinese: the sons of Chinese immigrants. If they're sporting oddly musty "Anglo" names that recall old white men in tweedy suits, I'm willing to bet. So I'm appealing to you today to help me understand this phenomenon of Asian American culture. Most of us who are 1st or 2nd generation arrivals have some form of the Name Drama-Trauma story to tell. (There's even been a book and movie about it recently; thanks, Jhumpa Lahiri!) I've been collecting these stories, informally, in my head, and have identified a couple genres:

1) The Mortimer Adler. Names like the list above, saddling the bearer with a lifetime of dorkish stereotypes to defy -- or fulfill. If you know culturally unsavvy parents who proudly picked a stinker, tell me: where did they find it? They can't have been casually inspired by the beauty of a handle like "Egbert" in the late 20th century; they had to go looking for it, right? I'd like to know the proud story behind these names: the selection process, the hopes for the first-born son...

Or, if you've just got a great example to share, do tell. Here's my favorite: I have a friend who goes by Jeff. Usually, you might assume this is short for Jeffrey, but since he's 2nd generation Chinese American, you'd be wrong. It's short for Jefferson. More on Jeff later.

2) The Jennifers. Interestingly, the equal-and-opposite phenomenon for AsAm girls' names does not seem to be a proliferation of Elsbeths or Ethels. No, we just get Jennifers. Lots of them. Admittedly, the name Jennifer seems to have been a passion that united people across the land in the last few decades, not just the Asians. In the '70s it was the #1 girls' name in the country, peaking at over 17,000 parts per million (or 1.7% of the baby girl population). In the '80s it dropped to the #2 spot, and finally reached saturation point at the turn of the millennium. See for yourself (<-- I love this site).

So in this case, Asian parents seem to have gone with the people's choice of the moment -- but then, why the gender difference in the popular vs. the arcane? I have my suspicions, but I'd like to hear from some of the Jennifers. (Graces, you can chime in, too.)

3) "It's not short for anything." These are the kids who are legally named by other people's nicknames. So when you call the kid Davey, it's not short for David; it's not short for anything, it's his name. And on the birth certificate, it may well be spelled "Davvy" but pronounced "Davey." Not a hugely common scenario, I'll admit, but who knows -- all you Davvys out there, holla at me.

And now, back to Jeff. Whose middle initial is not a middle initial. His parents looked around and thought, "These Americans seem to have letters between their first and last names. How about O?" So his middle name is O.

4) "Thank god we're here; now go to school." These are names given in honor and gratitude for the good fortune of having successfully arrived in the United States, and to inform the baby boy in no uncertain terms what his academic goals will be. Like the young man named Stanford who went to Stanford. When I was at UCB, I did tae kwon do, and on our team we had a Vietnamese guy named California, and a Chinese guy named Berkeley. This became particularly delightful when they sparred during a tournament, and the cheering (from opposite sides of the ring, with lots of giggling) went something like this: "Go Cal!" "Go Berkeley!" "Go Cal!" ...

5) "Oh no, you didn't." This is kind of a grab-bag category. In which I'd place stories like this: Also at Cal, I met a young man born in the year of the dragon, whose parents wanted to name him something auspicious. Looking around, they perceived that Americans tend to tack these "ee" sounds to the ends of boys' names, like "Tommy" or "Bobby." To make their son's auspicious name user-friendly, they dubbed him Dragony.

And then there's my uncle. Who's just named his first-born son Nixon.

6) Finally, there are the names in the original tongue, that just make a person's life too hard. In Vietnamese, "Bich" and "Dung" come to mind. Actually pronounced "bic" and "zung," kinda, but that doesn't help in elementary school. Or in making restaurant reservations, for that matter.

So what's your name, dear reader, how did you get it, and how do you cope? What are your stories, and what are your theories? I know you've got 'em, and you've been dying to tell. Give 'em here.


p.s. Someone with a much better memory than mine pointed out that we've blogged on the topic of names before. Last year. In fact, before Melissa wrote this earlier piece, she and I gabbed about it (contributing to greater, though still fairly slight, overlap), and when it was posted, I even read and commented on the piece. And then I clean forgot. Wait, what was I saying? I don't remember.


erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



Gladstone?! Wow. Let me see if I can one up you. I've met a Chinese American dude named Cromwell.
calling yourself Virgin: love how some people craft their own punishment.another story: ER doctor friend of mine once had a Chinese guy come in, complaining of a rash, down there. his name? I Chi Wang.
Just some anecdotal laundry-listing of the names of my hk international friends at my college:-Alvis (of British origin, not so much rock n' roll americana)-Stanley-Ken-Gladys (always reminds me of a maid in a pristinely starched outfit)-Christy-Stephanie-Anna-VincentIt does follow the arcane female/esoteric male trend... curious
legendary at Stanford B-School (and don't feel sorry for him, b/c apparently he enjoys his name): Richard Wang. middle name Dong. also known as Dick.see here: http://profiles.friendster.com/3830478the stories keep coming! :)
I have you all beat. In my neighbourhood growing up, there were two Filipino kids (brothers) named Stinky and Sonny.Stinky has since changed his name to Vincent.
excellent post. one phenomenon i've noticed, at least with chinese parents, is naming all your kids with the same initials. my brother and i have exactly the same initials -- first, middle, last. and i knew one chinese family that had the same initials for every single member of the nukular family: mom, dad, 2 sons and 1 daughter. they must have saved hella cash on monograms.and, what's up with some chinese parents naming their kids like ships or british beef dishes? perhaps a nod to america's british roots. right.
"British beef dishes" -- LOL!I have a habit of collecting female "Double L" names that appear in pop culture and in those around me: like Lucy Liu, Lisa Ling, Lela Lee, etc. My list is about 30 names long now...This reminds me of the chapter in Freakonomics about black/white naming practices.
i am named after a certain rock star and damn proud of it.my sister, dad, and i all have the same middle name, and i don't know why that is.
I'd really like to hear why parents name their kids as they do. A couple current theories about Chinese names (since I have no insight into other Asian cultures):1. Maybe they are approximations of actual Chinese names. I don't have a Western/Christian name, but a likely candidate could be "Winston" or "Vincent" since they are vaguely close to "Weng Seng". Ever notice how Chines names sound better when using the full or generational+individual names instead of a single syllable name?My cousin's English names are not anything close to their Chinese names, however, nor are the English names of my friends who also have traditional Chinese names. I guess those name possibilites are more like your lazy neighbor who can't be bothered to try using a mispronounced version of your name and instead chooses and easier to pronounce English name.2. They are attempts to make it easier for a child to transition into another (more prosperous) culture. Not always successful, of course, given that parents' experience and understanding of foreign culture is often rudimentary.Apparently, in Singapore is becoming more common among privileged families to name their kids with English (language, not culture) names, often adding an English name in front of the traditional Chinese name (then the family names serves as a bit of a transition from Western to traditional Chinese name) or dropping the traditional Chinese practice altogether because they see the hopefully prosperous future for their children in other countries or in a more Englishized (ie globalized) Singapore. I'm curious how globalization has effected naming conventions in other cultures (Asian and otherwise).There was a good scene in the movie/TV show Alien Nation when the new alien cop explains to his human partner how he decided on human names for his children- he named one of his kids "Nixon" and the human suggested he change it. In a later scene, the Newcomer get back at his partner by saying the human's name means "shithead" in the Newcomer language.
Names in my family:StevenVictorWilliamWarrenDanielKennyBettyChristinaAngelaAnd of course, no Chinese family would be complete without at least one Michael.
Also, what's up with Chinese parents giving their kids Russian names? I think there's a Facebook group dedicated to those kids.I know two Chinese Tania/Tanyas, an Anatoly, a Natalya, an Irina....probably more.
#2. actually I noticed that many females also had arcane first names in the high schools i went to. (gloria, ruth, esther, etc.) even if the families weren't christian, it's as if they turned to a bible to name the children. as for more common contemporary names, yes there were many jennifers but may i also point out the many james and daniels out there. i've also noticed a lot who were embarrased over their chinese names. i would ask classmates what their characters were and sometimes they would not say. at college a chinese girl told me how much she loved japanese names for being multi-syllabic as opposed to chinese (single syllable for each name) and because japanese kept their ethnic names and did not adopt western names. i had never thought about it before.
i'm a jennifer! i'm the second of three children, and each time my mom was convinced she was giving birth to a boy and had a boy's name ready. she did actually have a girl's name, just in case, but that was used up by my older sister, so when i came along i apparently went nameless for a few days until my father went and bought a baby name book. and the original name they came up with was jennifer (my dad, i'll note, too, is NOT asian but i suspect he didn't really give much care one way or the other about what we were named). all my life i felt it didn't really suit me, so i decided to just start introducing myself as jane everywhere i went. it's worked out pretty well ... a lot of people i associate with just call me that. i'm living in china, now and it's funny: the other day my (foreign) coworkers were complaining about why all the chinese women here choose names like vivian, jennifer, summer, winter, rain, daisy, etc. there's surely a lot of weird self-naming going on here, some due to translation of chinese names into english, others naming themselves after companies (like virgin! haha!--that was a teenaged boy), celebrities (i've known a kobe and a legion of boys who named themselves after their favorite brazilian soccer players), and others just must be because they like the sound, or maybe they find some obscure meaning that the name at one time had ("what's it mean?" always seems to be a top concern when choosing a name here). my favorites are the homophonic names: qirui to jerry, zhuli to julie, zhudi to judy, etc.on the other hand there are for sure plenty of westerners who choose idiotic chinese names too just because they think the meaning is cool (namely all the guys who name themselves "long"--dragon, not the english meaning. and da shan, that buffoon.)
actually, the use of soemwhat obscure British names for boys is not strictly (or even largely) an asian thing. I've known a Hopeton, a Gladstone (yes...GLADSTONE!!), a Chauncy, two Barringtons and a Livingston (not a doctor either) all of whom are Black from the Caribbean. Proper English names they 'ave mate!Now I've meet two Esthers (under 40) - both Koreans and a number of Hannahs but I think this is the 'easy speak' for Hyun.A moratorium on Michael, Christopher, John, Amy, Jennifer, Ashley and Robert wouldn't bother me.