Linguistics experts say English names, including unusual ones that would not be found in Western English-speaking countries, are becoming more prevalent,
though they cannot pinpoint when the trend began.
"There are no signs of abating," said David Li, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of linguistics and modern language
studies. "There are more and more exotic or unusual names if one cares to collect and document them."
The immigration department, the government body overseeing identification registration, does not compile statistics on categories of names, but a cursory
inspection suggests the experts may be right. In 2005, the author of HKSAR Blog concluded that the names of 2.5 percent of 5,707 lawyers were unusual,
uncommon, or unique. When I recently surveyed the current register of 7,367 lawyers myself, I found the proportion of names matching these descriptions had
risen to 6 percent.
To unravel why Hong Kongers would choose to be called Whale or Uriah instead of John or Jane, we must explain why they use English names in the first
In Hong Kong, where English is an official language and international commerce is the bread and butter, adopting an English name often comes naturally. In
the early 1980s, before the government started promoting Chinese as the language of instruction, 90 percent of secondary schools taught in English. Some
Hong Kongers are given the names by their parents at birth or by their teachers at school. Some devise them themselves.
The practice goes back to colonial times. "There was a period when it seemed desirable or prestigious to have an English name," said Stephen Matthews, an
associate professor of the linguistics department at the University of Hong Kong's school of humanities. "Businessmen would take on English names as a mark
of sophistication or to show they did business with foreigners."
In school, it was easier for English-speaking teachers to remember students' English names than their Chinese ones, Matthews said. And, as Li notes in a
1997 paper, addressing students by their English names was one way to encourage their interest in the language.
Li writes that English first names served as a "lubricant" to speed up the process of getting acquainted. Chinese forms of address, which are either very
formal or overly familiar, do not favor quick rapport-building between strangers.
"In North America or the U.K., people transition to the first-name basis quickly," he said. "We Chinese are not so willing to use given names, which are
reserved for people who are really close, like family members."
Matthews estimates that 90 percent of the institution's female and 65 percent of its male students have English first names.
As for the unconventional names, he said they initially arose in part due to an "incomplete knowledge" of the English language. Hong Kongers might have not
appreciated the connotation of the name Kinky, for example. Februar might have been a misspelling or the result of someone over-generalizing the use of the
names of the months like April, May or June, or both.