Good Advice for Choosing an English Name

Apple, Chlorophyll, Icarus, Kinky, Melon, Omicron, Smacker, Swallow, Winsome, Yoyo…the English names chosen by (or assigned to) native Chinese speakers are often not so great.

And, in many cases, they’re later regretted. Here’s what a Hong Kong business student Fragile Chan had to say about his English name:

“I started using ‘Fragile’ when I was 14,” he says. “I first encountered the word in my English class and I chose it as my name because I liked how it’s pronounced.”

Chan says his name makes it easy for others to remember him and it’s an easy conversation-starter when he meets new people. But in his experience, having an uncommon name isn’t always pleasant.

“I am tired of explaining my name to others when I need to introduce myself. Some people even mock me for having a ‘fragile heart’,” he says. Now Chan has decided to change his name to Nathan. “I would like to be less weird in formal situations,” he says.

One U.S. entrepreneur has created a site called Best English Name, which helps Chinese students choose more appropriate English names. Site-suggested names include “Davis, Max, Eli, and Riley” for males and “Elody, Ava, Jolie, and Ellie” for females. These are a lot better than Kinky and Melon, and style-wise they’re fairly appropriate for current teenagers.

But I think the best advice out there comes from Philip Guo’s blog post How to choose an English name, because it can be applied to any age group.

His main recommendation? Go to the SSA’s website, find the top 100 names for your birth year, and choose one from the list for your gender. He says:

You must choose your name from one of these 100 names. Even if you randomly choose a name (for your gender, of course), then congratulations, I guarantee that you have chosen a better name than most of your friends who tried to be creative!

So a 15-year-old student (b. 2001) can choose from names like:

  • Isabel, Katie, Mia, Sophia, Zoe
  • Aidan, Chase, Isaiah, Jack, Noah

But a 40-year-old business-person (b. 1976) can choose from names that might be a better fit for his/her generation, such as:

  • Amy, Dana, Monica, Tina, Wendy
  • Chad, Dennis, Peter, Shane, Tony

Best of all, every top 100 list includes names appropriate for people of various ages. For example, these names were on both the 1976 and the 2001 lists:

  • Anna, Elizabeth, Michelle, Natalie, Sarah
  • Adam, David, John, Nathan, Victor

Guo’s other recommendations include ignoring name definitions entirely and sticking to the exact version of the name found in the top 100. He also suggests choosing a name that sounds somewhat like one’s birth name, e.g., the English name Shawn would work well for a Chinese man named Sheng.

Do you have any other good advice for people (Chinese people in particular) seeking English names?

Sources: Students with unusual names: ‘at least no one forgets us’, Laowai Entrepreneur Wants to Rid China of English “Stripper Names”, Popular Baby Names – SSA

2 thoughts on “Good Advice for Choosing an English Name

  1. That was a really good article.

    My advice (though my experience is in teaching Korean students in particular, not Chinese): double and triple check that you are spelling the name correctly. It is easy for non-native speakers to make mistakes because English spelling is non-intuitive to them. For instance, I had a Korean student named Brain. It was really supposed to be Brian, and that’s what he THOUGHT it was. It makes sense. Bra + in. Say it fast and you sort of get “Brian.” But people were too polite to tell him his name was spelled wrong and actually meant something else…it was sad.

    The other thought I have is not to try too hard to find a name that sounds like your original name. Obviously, if you pick from the list of top 100 for your birth year, you can’t go too wrong (anyone but me think Caitlyn Jenner should have done that??), but I have had a couple of young Korean students who chose the name Eunice because it sounded so much like their original name (Eun is a common syllable in Korean names). But that is maybe not the best choice of names for a young girl these days.

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