[THE FOUNTAIN] What Is in a Name?

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[THE FOUNTAIN] What Is in a Name?

A village called "Doduk-gol" named after teeming thieves was changed to Dodeok-ri, or Place of Morality. Okbat Street, or Jail Street, was changed to Ok-dong, with the change of the homophonic Chinese character signifying "jail" to "jade." Jae-dong of Seoul owes its name to a historical incident of scattering ashes, but its Chinese character was changed into a homonym, meaning "reverence." Jae-dong was where Prince Suyang (1417-1468) had his nephew King Danjong's loyal servants massacred, and residents had to scatter ashes to muffle the stench of blood. The change of the Chinese characters covered the smell of blood one more time.

All things in the world have names. Rather, they become meaningful to human beings only when they have names. Korean place names are imbedded in Korean surnames with implied origins of their ancestors. In Korea, the attachment to a place has been as strong as blood ties. Korean place names began with pure Korean terms depicting natural surroundings, but changed into two-syllable Chinese-derived words during King Kyeongdeok's reign (742-765) in Silla Kingdom. Since then, new dynasties and the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) gave new names to many areas in a bid to earn public sentiment or to facilitate administrative affairs. In addition to natural place names, other place names keep sprouting, related to economic activities, military presence, transportation and culture. For this reason, a place name is a comprehensive cultural asset, allowing a glimpse not only into the region's climatic characteristics, but also its culture, history, economy and even the characteristics of the inhabitants.

Recently, some residents have come forward to demand a name change for their neighborhoods with humiliating names. According to a JoongAng Ilbo report on Tuesday, Pasan-dong residents have requested a name change because Pasan, or Snake Hill, named after abundant snakes, is the homonym of bankruptcy that has hit many companies and households in the midst of an economic downturn. Also residents of Sachang-ri and Namchang-ri in many parts of the nation, named after traditional grain storage houses, ask that their neighborhoods be renamed because they sound like red-light districts.

Since many Korean ancestors put importance on morality and ethics, they avoided names that buck this ideal. But ordinary people often called places according to natural features. Some of them, named after topography resembling male or female private parts, sounded too vulgar for refined ears. In such cases, they were changed into Ungsan (Huge Peak) or Yeomun (Woman's Gate). If most residents of a place want a name change, what is wrong to find something rich with history and beauty?

by Lee Kyeung-chul

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