Much of the contents of this Cygnet blog are about helping Hong Kong English users understand normal or standard English usage better, and use it in their own writing or speaking. But what about English names? Many (perhaps most) Hong Kong people who use English have an 'English name' in addition to their Chinese one. Are there any rules about choosing an English name? Are there names that are acceptable or unacceptable? Does it really matter what you call yourself?
If you're a Hong Kong reader, ask yourself how you got your own English name. Those of us who were born in English-speaking countries were given our names at birth, by our parents. But that's still quite unusual in Hong Kong. It's more likely that either (a) you had an English name suggested to you or allocated to you by one of your English teachers when you were a child, or (b) you chose an English name for yourself. It may even be the case that both (a) and (b) apply to you, since some Hong Kong people actually change their English names at some point in their life.
You will find no rules about 'correct' or 'incorrect' names in any English book about grammar or usage. But there are many unspoken norms and habits in English-speaking countries concerning names and naming. Most Hong Kong people don't know these norms and habits -- especially young and inexperienced people wanting to choose their own names. As a result, Hong Kong 'English' names often cause a great deal of surprise and amusement to visitors. In fact, probably the most common adjective you'll find used to describe them is 'weird' -- as in this headline from The Atlantic from a couple of years ago:
If you're a Hong Kong reader, though, you may be thinking "hang on -- but what makes one name 'weird' and another one not? How can I tell?". You may be thinking something like "My English name is Winnie -- so is that 'weird' to native English speakers, or is it OK?"
Here are two important facts about English names and naming that are worth keeping in mind:
* Most English names are not invented by the user; they have been used before. Some of the most well-known English names have been around for centuries -- like George, or William, or Anne, or Jane. Even some of the more unusual names used these days are not original -- they tend to be borrowed from old sources like the Bible.
* English names go in and out of fashion over time. My grandmother and her sisters (who were born at the beginning of the 20th century) were all named after trees: she was Olive, and her sisters were Hazel and Myrtle. These days it would be very unusual for parents to use these names for their children. Some of the most common Hong Kong English names (like 'Winnie' for example) are good old English names but have now gone completely out of fashion. When visitors come to Hong Kong, they are often surprised at how old-fashioned many of the names here are.
These facts mean that if you adopt either of the following two methods to name yourself, you may come across as having a 'weird' name to native English speakers:
1) Adopting a name that is a common noun. I've already mentioned that there a few names in English that take there forms of common nouns (like 'Olive', 'Myrtle' and 'Hazel'). But only a few. If you select a noun as your name, it should at least have some positive connotations. An example of this is the Hong Kong name 'Rain'. It is included in many lists of so-called 'weird' Hong Kong names, but in fact its positive connotations of water and nourishment make it quite an attractive name in many respects. By contrast, consider the bold noun selected as a name by this HKID graduate:
Soilworm -- I am not criticising your choice of English name! It seems to me creative and slightly shocking, and what I would expect of an award-winning designer. But for most of us, the negative connotations of 'worms' would make this a noun to steer clear of when selecting a name for ourselves.
2) Adopting a name that is not a pre-existing name and that does not occur in any dictionary. Names like this are so new and so unfamiliar that they can cause problems of recognition and pronunciation. In the image below (more HKDI graduates), three of the names fall into this category. 'Woodeast' is unusual though it can be broken down visually into its two components 'wood' and 'east'. But 'Forza' and 'Tarurs' are completely unfamiliar to most English speakers. These names have never been seen before and will not even be recognised as names at first glance by most English speakers.
Once again, let me insist that I am not saying that Hong Kong young people should stop creating or using these surprising, amazingly creative 'English' names. In the article referred to at the beginning of this blog post, HKU's Prof Stephen Matthews makes this point (the whole article is worth a read, at [http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/hong-kong-loves-weird-english-names/263103/]
"It started as an inadequate knowledge of English, but if you see an unusual name today, it's because [Hong Kongers] are taking charge of their own language, not because their language abilities are not good," Matthews said. "People feel they can do what they want with English. If you tell Decemb or Februar that theirs are not English names, they'll say, 'I don't care, it belongs to me.' In a way, they're asserting their Hong Kong identity... [The English language in Hong Kong] is no longer a symbol of British influence, but part of people's identity."
In summary, this post is not for those of you wanting to assert your identity or your power over English. It's for anyone who is just not sure where to draw the line between standard and 'weird' names, between socially conventional names and names that are highly unconventional, between names that will make people take you seriously and names that might make people laugh at you.
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.