About three years ago, a Facebook friend slid into my DMs with a question: "Who are your favorite K-pop girl groups?" I enthusiastically replied, "BLACKPINK, TWICE, (G)I-DLE, and ITZY," among others. They followed up with, "Are those the actual spellings, or are you just excited?"
My answer? "Both!"
The K-pop industry is renowned for its meticulous planning and branding. Also, at least stateside, for capitalization and spelling that defy English conventions.
It all starts with a name—a name that often comes with intentional and insistent stylization in all caps, courtesy of K-pop companies and their PR teams. Members’ names are frequently as…baffling.
But these names are more than just words; they hold a hidden layer of meaning. Take BTS, for example. In Korean, it's short for "Bangtan Sonyeondan," which translates to "Bulletproof Boy Scouts." As J-Hope explained in a 2016 interview with Affinity Magazine, "bangtan" signifies resistance to bullets, symbolizing their mission to shield adolescents from stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations.
Some K-pop group names require even more deciphering. Acronyms are a common theme, like MBLAQ (Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality), TEEN TOP (Teenager Emoboy Emotion Next Gen Object Praise), and B.A.P (Best Absolute Perfect). Anagrams are another trick—girl group LE SSERAFIM conveys seraphims (angels), but it also spells out "I’m Fearless," which aligns with their group’s ethos. “Fearless” was the title of their debut track. They also got extra mileage with their name when they titled their world tour with yet another anagram: “Flame Rises.”
Numbers also play a significant role in group names, often indicating the number of members, which can be problematic when members leave, as in the case of Fromis_9. Boy group SEVENTEEN was originally intended to debut with 17 members but ended up with 13, leading to a new interpretation: 13 members + 3 sub-units + 1 team. (Sub-units are smaller formations of a group that explore different concepts and discographies.) Even late-night host Jimmy Fallon was puzzled by their name when interviewing super fan and Wednesday star Emma Myers.
South Korean entertainment giant CJE&M has birthed several K-pop groups through their reality talent competition series Produce 101 and its spinoffs, each group's name referencing the show's title. The first season created the girl group I.O.I, while the second formed the boy group Wanna One. Produce 48, a collaboration with Japanese girl group AKB48, gave birth to the girl group IZ*ONE.
But amid all the whimsy and creativity in K-pop names, there's one glaring frustration—and it’s not just my editor’s eye rolling at the chaotic spelling and grammar. Many groups suffer from poor SEO, meaning they can't be easily found on search engines without additional keywords like "K-pop" or "group." Red Velvet, for instance, used to yield recipes for red velvet cupcakes. TWICE faced similar challenges early in their career but overcame them with smash hits. Acts often cited for SEO woes include WINNER, KINGDOM, Highlight, Nature, April, HOT, After School, 2AM, and 2PM, among others.
A K-pop expert and former member of BLACKPINK’s management, who wished to remain anonymous, sheds light on the naming process: "It's more of a bottom-up approach. We have all these things—what we want to do with the music, our genre, how they look, their personality, or at least the perceived personality—and then the group name will probably come last."
Regarding the SEO issue, he notes, "Back in the day, I don't think anyone really cared about that. That wasn't part of their strategy. Going into the U.S. wasn't their thing." Many older K-pop groups existed before the Western K-pop boom and social media era. Companies primarily focused on domestic fans in South Korea, who searched their Korean group names in hangul, yielding better results.
Can K-pop group names be silly or confusing? Yes. The initial confusion or amusement often stems from viewing them through an English lens. Yet, it's crucial to recognize that K-pop is fundamentally Korean. Beyond the all-caps stylization, acronyms, anagrams and numerical quirks, these names provide an insightful window into a culture that embraces its creative and cultural roots.
Published on November 6, 2023
Words by Daniel Anderson
Daniel Anderson is a disabled Chinese American adoptee based in Seattle. His freelance writing specialties include K-pop, entertainment, and food. He believes that any restaurant can be a buffet, and the key to success is to take a nap each day. Follow his adventures on Instagram @danzstan.