What do Korean Last Names Mean?

Dear Korean,

What do Korean last names mean? I mean, I know most of them come from dynasties—but what does Kim mean? Pak? Cho? And others? I can't believe they exist sui generis!

The Mexican

The Mexican strikes again!

Here in AAK!, the most important policy is that the Korean will do whatever the hell he wants with this blog. The second most important policy is this: whenever Gustavo Arellano, i.e. the Mexican, i.e. the owner of ¡Ask a Mexican! and the inspiration for this blog, sends a question to this blog, that questions gets answered as soon as possible, no matter how long the line is and no matter what the question is. That is right, the Korean has answered numerous questions about Korean names before, but what does it matter? When the granddaddy of all "Ask" blogs asks your blog a question, you answer. That's it.

So what do Korean last names mean? Let's put it this way: Korean language has a Chinese backbone, as just like English has a Latin backbone. In other words, while there are plenty of Korean words that have a stand-alone meaning in Korean, a lot of Korean words have a meaning that one must refer back to Chinese to understand -- that is, those words are Sino-Korean. Sino-Korean words tend to appear in clusters in a given word group. For example, Korean law tends to be heavily laden with Sino-Korean, just like American lawyers speak of a sui generis action that should be so obvious that it is res ipsa loquitur, for example.

Name is another area in which Sino-Korean tends to dominate. Although pure Korean names are gaining popularity in the last several decades, the overwhelming majority of Korean names are Sino-Korean. In fact, this type of questions hits the Korean's inbox fairly frequently:  I have a Korean name; what does my name mean? (In most cases, the questioners are adoptees who are attempting retrace their roots.) And usually, the Korean's answer is:  unless you know the what Chinese characters were used for your name, the Korean can't really say what your name means.

Korean last names are 100% Sino-Korean. That is, all Korean last names have an underlying Chinese character. So the meaning of Korean last names are basically the meaning of the Chinese characters underlying those last names.

Having said that, here are the ten most common Korean last names, the underlying Chinese characters, and what they mean:
  • 김 [金] [Kim] - Gold.
  • 이 [李] [Lee] - Plum tree.
  • 박 [朴] [Park/Pak] - Magnolia tree.
  • 최 [崔] [Choi] - Pinnacle.
  • 정* [鄭] [Chung/Jung/Jeong] - "Zheng" (name of a Chinese kingdom.)
  • 정* [丁] [Chung/Jung/Jeong] - Large nail (as in hammer and nail.)
  • 정* [程] [Chung/Jung/Jeong] - To count
  • 강 [姜] [Kang] - Ginger.
  • 조* [曺] [Cho] - Group, companion.
  • 조* [趙] [Cho] - "Zhao" (name of a Chinese kingdom.)
  • 윤 [尹] [Yoon] - To rule.
  • 한* [韓] [Han] - Korea.
  • 한* [漢] [Han] - "Han" (name of a Chinese kingdom.)
  • 임* [任] [Im] - To be in charge.
  • 임* [林] [Im/Lim] - Forest
*Chung, Cho, Han and Im/Lim are interesting oddballs -- each of those last names actually has two or more different Chinese characters, which are pronounced the same way in Korean.

So there you have it, Mexican. Catch you next time.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.