The Art and Science of Chinese Names

One afternoon last fall, my husband and I were discussing his lack of a Chinese name. I had just gotten an assignment to write a piece about Westerners and Chinese names for Schwa Fire, so I was thinking about the subject quite a bit. We were also planning a trip to China, which meant visa application forms that asked for a Chinese name. My husband didn’t have a name. So I made an off-the-cuff suggestion.

“What about Fei (飞)Ou (欧)?”

As a Chinese name, this was a nonsensical suggestion: Ou is a surname, it should go first, so if I had wanted to use these two characters, it would actually have to be Ou Fei. But I wasn’t just getting this idea out of nowhere: My husband’s first name is Frank, so I thought an “f” sound would go well for his given name. His last name is Omier, so I thought the family name should start with an “o” sound.

Both sounds are pronounced in the first tone, which is relatively high-pitched and long. Before I had gotten the second syllable out, I realized what I was saying and started laughing so hard that my eyes were tearing up.

My husband looked both amused and offended as I doubled over with laughter. Fei Ou sounds a heck of a lot like “feo,” which means “ugly” in Spanish, except slightly exaggerated and musical. My husband is from Nicaragua and Spanish is his native language. A name that is literally ugly in Spanish was not going to work.

Most of the cases I came across while I was working on the story involved accidental profanity or offense in Chinese, not some other Western language. But choosing a Chinese name is a complex (and highly personal) process, and in working on the story, I kept coming across stories of linguistic mishaps. Interestingly, however, rather few people had a Chinese-name blunder story that was about themselves – it was usually about someone else.

The was one exception that was so interesting it became an integral part of the story – an actor from California who has lived (and worked as an actor) in China for nearly two decades and whose Chinese name is remarkable.

If you’re interested in Chinese culture, check out the story. If you’re interested in language in general (I’m assuming that is just about everyone reading this site) make sure to check out Schwa Fire – it’s a digital magazine with long-form journalism about language.

And if you’re looking for a Chinese name for your spouse (or anyone else, including yourself), try to a avoid anything that sounds “feo.”