An acquaintance of mine recently had a new baby (...ok, his wife did). I ran into him about a week later and asked all the usual questions. I did not get the usual answers. Me: "So, what's the baby's name?"
New Dad: "Oh, I don't know yet. But I called the man who will name him today, so we'll find out soon. Maybe in two or three days."
Turns out most Koreans don't name their own kids. Instead, they ask a complete stranger to do it for them. At first, I was pretty shocked. Who lets their kid hang out nameless while they scrounge up some random guy to choose? It's not the kind of job I'd want to outsource, either. That's a good way to end up with a Horatio or Brunhilda.
But it turns out Koreans have a very good reason to turn it over to a third party. A baby's name can shape its entire future. And parents do not want to mess that up. So they call a professional, a jak myeong so (작명소).
Naming is a complex science. The child's time and date of birth are considered, along with the Chinese zodiac. Koreans have two given names, each a syllable long. Every syllable has a Chinese meaning, and different combinations could lead to different futures. The jak myeong so gives the parents two or three auspicious choices tailored specifically to their child.
The first syllable is frequently dictated by lineage. Some families use names as generational markers. The options are predetermined, and that's why siblings often share the same first name. This is less common than it used to be, though. I know several parents who broke the rule despite familial pressure.
Changing a child's name is a viable way to change his or her fate. It's a drastic step, but one many parents will consider if their baby develops a life-threatening illness. Another Korean friend's son had cancer as a toddler, and amidst his other treatments they consulted a famous jak myeong so in Seoul. The child got a new name, pulled through, and is now a healthy middle schooler. (with yet another name, after I showed up and started calling him Sven.)
My name is a perfect two syllables long, easily written in Hangeul, and I'm often asked what it means. Koreans get confused when I tell them I'm named for a country my parents have never seen--a name they picked out before I was born.
Me: Well, Americans choose a name because they like the way it sounds.
Korean Friends: ...
Me: Hey, I'm just glad it's not Brunhilda.