Washing Liquid, Twinkie, Purple Grape, Superman, Furry.
These are some of the offbeat English names that Chinese people have chosen for themselves, often not realizing that they may elicit smirks or baffled looks.
American entrepreneur Lindsay Jernigan is trying to change that with her website, BestEnglishName.com. For as little as 148 yuan ($22), she helps Chinese people select a more appropriate name. The 26-year-old came up with the idea while working in the Shanghai office of a real estate developer where her Chinese colleagues had names like Apple, Boat and Olilia.
“I noticed that Westerners would immediately marginalize them and not see them as real people — people who were smart or capable,” she said. “They would take them as a cartoon character and get really hung up on the name.”
Jernigan investigated and found there were scarce resources for finding more appropriate Western names, even though naming is a tradition that’s taken very seriously in China. A name is thought to make or break your luck.
She quit her job after setting up the naming service, betting it would become increasingly important as business ties multiply between China — the world’s second-largest economy — and the West.
One customer, whose Chinese name is Shan Hongjun, sought Jernigan’s help after noticing some Western colleagues struggled with his name.
Shan, 30, works for a major Chinese technology firm and wanted to find an English name that both Chinese and foreigners could pronounce without difficulty, making it easier to introduce himself at work or when traveling abroad.
In the end, it came down to Harrison and Carson. “I thought Carson might sound funny — like ‘son of a car,'” he said. “So I chose Harrison because the name reminded me of ‘son of Harry,’ and I think everyone must know Harry Potter.”
Recent college graduate Yu Jiatong is improving her English to pursue work and study opportunities abroad. She felt she needed a foreign name to boost her chances. After consulting with BestEnglishName.com, she ended up going with “Alyssa” because she felt it was memorable and unique.
Since launching last year, Jernigan has helped more than 1,000 people choose names through one-on-one consultations. Another 40,000 people have filled out her online questionnaire that for a couple of dollars generates suggestions based on their responses.
Clients range from students looking to study abroad to parents who plan to give birth in the U.S. to gain American citizenship for their children. She’s even done package deals for families.
But coming up with the right name can be tough when navigating between two cultures and languages.
For example, “Sadie” doesn’t go over so well. It’s a perfectly fine name in English, but Chinese people have told Jernigan that they object because it contains the word “die.” (This is linked to a Chinese superstition: words in Mandarin that sound like “die,” such as the number 4, are generally considered bad omens. Many buildings, for example, omit floors 4, 14, 24 and so on in their numbering.)
Plenty of other Chinese love their offbeat names and have zero plans to change them.
Ice Chen, a manager at an arts and music venue in Hong Kong, chose “Ice” because it’s a direct translation of part of her Chinese name, Chen Yanbing. It’s a poetic, traditional name that marries the words for “ice” and “swallow,” referring to the bird.
The name complements her character, she says, which is “more sunny, so maybe ‘Ice’ makes me cool down!”