July 05, 2012

Names and numbers

Gorô's name means "number five (五) son (郎)." When it comes to names for Japanese boys, this formula can be used with just about any number. Here is a small sample:

01  一郎  Ichirô
02  二郎  Jirô
03  三郎  Saburô
04  四郎  Shirô
05  五郎  Gorô
06  六郎  Rokurô
07  七郎  Shichirô
08  八郎  Hachirô
09  九郎  Kurô

Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company has a fascinating year-by-year, top-10 breakdown of all the given names registered in their databases since 1912 (Japanese only). It reveals considerable shifts in naming choices over the last century.

Between 1912 and 1923, Ichirô and Saburô consistently show up in the top ten, but not Jirô. Maybe parents got more creative with son number two. After 1923, the "number + " combination fell out of the top ten and never made it back in.

Ichirô, though, remains a popular name. The most famous Ichirô is Ichirô Suzuki (鈴木一朗), right fielder for the Mariners. The second character in his given name, however, is written with a slightly difference kanji that means "cheerful," not "son."

Out of the single digits, a literal reading of "number + " combination becomes nonsensical. It's unlikely that "Sanjûrô" is supposed to mean "number thirty son."

10  十郎  Jûrô
30  三十郎  Sanjûrô
50  五十郎  Isorô

Names with numbers in them remain common for reasons that have more to do with the way the numbers are pronounced. The Japanese started assigned phonemes to numbers long before the telephone. The Japan Times provides a recent example:

The height of Tokyo Skytree--634 meters--has symbolic meaning for the area known long ago as Musashi, covering Tokyo and parts of Saitama and Kanagawa, because the figure's syllables can stand for 6 ("mu"), 3 ("sa") and 4 ("shi").

Yakuza is the pronunciation of "8-9-3," a losing hand in a Edo period card game resembling blackjack.

The "number + daughter" convention isn't used with girls, but numbers show up in names such as Sen (1000), and the Ma (as in "Mari") prefix (10,000). In the latter case, the character is the same as the first character in Banzai (万才), meaning "long life."

The popular girl's name Nana can also be read "seven," prompting Microsoft to name its Windows 7 mascot "Nanami Madobe" (madobe means "by the window").

One given name on this side of the Pacific derived directly from a number (aside from "Seven of Nine" and "Thirteen") does spring to mind: Trinity.

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