The story behind my Chinese name.

Names are always a challenge for representation in a foreign language. Words like 'middle-aged man' have a meaning that can be translated but English names don't have generally recognised meanings; an English name is one (or more) English syllables used to represent someone. The two syllables that combine to make my given name 'Thomas' [tɒm] [əs] have no intrinsic meaning. Names seem to be random combinations of valid English syllables, devoid of meaning.

Chinese rendering of English names.

Names are not translated, they need to be transliterated into a close representation of the original sound. Consider 'David', a two-syllable English name ('day', 'vid'). Neither syllable is part of the Chinese language syllabary so syllables close to 'day' and 'vid' are required. In Chinese, the closest syllables sound like 'dar' and 'way'. In Chinese, 'David' sounds like 'Darway'. The standard Chinese transliteration of 'Tom' sounds like the English words 'tongue' and 'moo' and is written with the characters 汤姆. When these two characters appear together, a Chinese reader will know it has the meaning of the English name 'Tom'.

Chinese characters and Chinese words.

Nearly all Chinese characters have one or more meanings and many can used, alone, as a word. More often, two, three, or four characters are combined to form a new word or to develop a more distinct meaning of a word. The individual characters in the Chinese word for 'Tom' each have a distinct meaning.

  • 汤 (English: sounds like 'tongue') has the meaning of 'soup', 'gravy', 'hot water', and is also a surname. (It also means rushing water with a different pronunciation.)

  • 姆 (English: sounds like 'moo') has the meaning of 'matron', 'child's governess'.

  • 汤姆 (English: sounds like 'tongue-moo') has the meaning of 'Tom'.

Why I like to be different

It is a surprise to my Chinese friends when I point out the literal (and unconventional) reading of '汤姆' as 'soup matron'. They had never considered that meaning, always having associated 汤姆 with 'Tom' - mainly as part of Tom and Jerry. But I come from a different perspective as a learner of Chinese language and can't forget the literal reading. So, I use a novel transliteration of my name. It sounds the same but uses different characters: 堂沐.

  • 堂 (English: sounds like 'tongue') has the meaning of 'hall', 'large room for a specific purpose, 'relationship between cousins etc on the paternal side of a family', 'of the same clan', 'classifier for sets (or suites) of furniture, classes'.

  • 沐 (English: sounds like 'moo') has the meaning of 'to bathe', 'to cleanse', 'to receive', to be given'
  • 堂沐 (English: sounds like 'tongue-moo') has no meaning in Chinese writing.

This represents a slight improvement on the meaning side but there's a more etherial advantage to using these characters. This requires exploring the ideas represented by internal parts of the characters themselves.

堂, like most Chinese characters can be decomposed into two constituents: 土 meaning 'earth' and 尚 which suggests the sound (its meaning is 'still', 'yet', 'to value', 'to esteem'). 沐, likewise, can be divided into two: 水 meaning 'water' (written as three strokes on the left side) and 木 which suggests the sound (its meaning is 'tree', 'wood'). 金, my Chinese family name, means 'gold'. Taken together, my Chinese name incorporates the elements of metal, water, wood, and earth. A very well-rounded name!