The Chinese Guide to Avoiding a Bad English Name

For example, avoid naming yourself after a food item ("Candy"), a famous person ("Obama"), or a very old person ("Gertrude").

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Years ago, I had a job in China where I evaluated the spoken English of college students. One bright young woman introduced herself to me with her Chinese name. Then she added: "You can call me 'Easy.' That's my English name."

I paused, thought for a moment, and then decided to say something. "You might want to consider changing your name," I said, explaining—as delicately as possible—that "easy" was an unfortunate name for a woman. Mortified, she thanked me for the tip. "I'm going to go and change my name now," she said.

People in China have adopted English names for decades. Many choose ones that resemble their birth names: Chinese boys named "Da Wei," a common name, almost invariably become "David." Others find inspiration from singers, athletes, politicians, or movie stars. In my first year in China, I taught five different boys called "Tom Hanks," thanks in part to Castaway's success.

Most of the "English" names I encountered were conventional, though others—like the aforementioned "Easy"—were less than appropriate. (I also taught a boy named "Fish" who, perhaps inspired by a certain musical artist, preferred to render his name by drawing it.)

CCTV, China's state-run broadcaster, wants to solve this problem. In an article published by its English-language channel, the network laid out a series of guidelines for how not to name yourself. For example, avoid naming yourself after a food item ("Candy"), a famous person ("Obama"), or a very old person ("Gertrude"). If you name yourself "Satan," says CCTV, people might think you're anti-Christian, or worse, a "member of a heavy metal band." Proper and traditional names, like "Michael," "William," and "Elizabeth," on the other hand, imply you're from a fancy and conservative family. Sweets-inspired names are "typically thought of as ‘non-smart girl’ names, or ‘stripper’ names."

One wonders if certain American celebrities might not also benefit from these guidelines. For instance, here's what CCTV has to say about using food as a name:

"Food is very hit or miss. And usually miss. One of the issues here is that food names can be 'very' suggestive."

Gwyneth Paltrow, take note.