My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.



I've been reading many interesting things about Thailand in a variety of books lately.  I found the following explanation about Thai nicknames very interesting, from Philip Cornwel-Smith's wonderful Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (Bangkok: River Books, 2005 pp.80-81):

"What's your name?" asks a Bangkok English teacher.  "Yes," the Thai student replies.  "No, what are you called?" rephrases the American teacher.  "Yes.  My name is Yes, Khun Yes," repeats the student, wondering why his English name wasn't understood.  Thai nicknames are often as startling as they are playful.  He could just as puzzlingly have replied "Oh," "Eh," "X," "Boy," "Not," "Joke" or, wait for it... "God."

In all but form-filling and formal situations, the Thai use cheu len — play names.  You can know someone for ages before learning their real first name and maybe never hear their family name.  Even rank bends to this cute, intimate habit, with generals often referred to as Big, hence newspapers call ex-prime minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh 'Big Jiew' (bit little).  While some cheu len sound fun — Eew, Oiu, Oei, Nooi, Dtik — most mean something.  Many are unisex (Nong is younger sibling), but several define gender (Chai is male or victory, Noom is lad, Ying is female) or stereotypes.  Boy's names may mean brave, strong or noble.  Girls usually get very delicate, pretty or charming names, often Thai words for flowers, gems, scents, or wistful things:  sky, star, moon.

Nicknames may describe the baby's size:  Lek (little), Noi (small), Yai (big), Uan (fat), Goi (little finger); or skin tone:  Daeng (red), Dum (black), Som (orange).  Non-human names apparently fools evil spirits from claiming kids.  Hence people answer to Moo (pig), Gob (frog), Poo (crab), Mod (ant), or Gai (chicken), and even to farmyard sounds:  Oud (oink), Guk (cluck), Jiab (chirp), Juum (splash).  But what's charming in children — Jim (pussy) or Juu (willy) — may embarrass adults.

Once expressive of rural culture, nicknames now reflect modernity and globalisation.  Old cheu len may reappear in English:  Fern, Ant, Rose, Ink, Oak, Bird, Baby.  Others use foreign words, often shortened from the end, like Bo (from Jumbo), Taem (from Je t'aime), Sin (from Cinderella) and Lo (from Marlboro).  Most of the English alphabet can be nicknames, some spelled with just one letter:  A, B, F, J, K, M, O, Q, X.

Among imports, few pick proper names like the singer James or model Cindy.  Most indicate trends or interests.  Wealth:  Gift, Bank, Mink, Oil, Pound.  Brands:  Benz, Ford, Sony, Nokia.  Hi-tech:  Neon, Beam, Intel, Com (from computer).  Food:  Cake, Mint, Candy.  Drink:  Pepsi, Milk, Fanta, Beer, Ice.  Adventure:  Map, Earth, Nato, Bomb.  Leisure:  Art, Balloon, Film, Guitar, Pencil.  Sport:  Golf, Game, Bad (from Badminton), Coat (from Coach), Man-U (from Manchester United).  Some mark events, like the Olympic medalist's baby Athens.

Nicknames like New and Win have a lucky cachet, something essential in real first names.  Since surnames were introduced only in 1926 to aid bureaucracy and communications — and to emulate Western tradition — first names remain the formal way to address anyone, whether doctor, parent, boss or minister.  This applies to foreigners too, thus Tony Blair becomes Mr. Tony.

Parents choose from naam mongkhon (auspicious names) suggested by a monk for lucky or astrological qualities.  For example, each birth day of the week is apportioned a chunk of the alphabet, from which the first letter could be chosen.  The nicer sounding the name the better.  To make it euphonious, some select one that alliterates with the family name, like Choopol Choompol or Kasem Kasemsan.  Others use the poetic device khlong jong to create rhyming chains of serial names, whether of city gates or siblings.  An example from a names column in Ploy Kaem Phet magazine cites these brothers in order of age:  Sariphong Worawit, Goradit Woragarn, Boriharn Woragit, Bandit Waragoon, Paitoon Ratsami.

Surnames must have a meaning, and get ever-longer, because they combine a finite supply of auspicious words.  While ethnic Thai names have one or two syllables, Sino-Thai monikers stretch to three, four, even seven syllables, like Ngoenprakairat (shining silver like a jewel).  Sino-Thai surnames may also incorporate the ancestral Chinese clan name like Lee or Lim, though its meaning might be translated into Pali or Sanskrit to look more Thai.  Thus in the Silpa-archa political dynasty, archa (horse) derived from the Beh (horse) clan.

Protocol demands the exclusivity of the many royally bestowed surnames and their English transliterations, which may differ from how they're said.  Thus Dr. Sumet Jumsai campaigned to get the celebrity Areeya Sirisopha to drop the surname Jumsai, which her family had adopted.  This was academic since everyone calls her Pop.

In fact, Thais often — and easily — change their name.  Some fall foul of chance:  Prateung (enhance) became slang for ladyboy after a song lyric, a rapist blighted the nickname Dtuii, and the film Bangrajan starred a buffalo called Boonlert (great merit).  Giving animals human names is taboo.  Others want a monk to suggest something luckier.  After Aphichet Kitikorncharoen of the boyband D2B fell into a coma, he was renamed Panrawat — Mr. Remain Alive.  Fans still call him Big.

Names remain quite fluid.  Since 2004, Thai women need no longer take on their husband's surname.  And double-barrelled ones may be imminent.  "It'll be great to have a kid with the last name Benedetti-Khemklad," says actor Somchai Khemklad, who married singer 'Nat' Myria Benedetti.  "Wouldn't that be cool?"

Since surnames never caught on except among major families, it's often only encountered on receiving a namecard.  This device is universal, not elite, with countless print shops offering elaborate designs and finishes.  Unlike the casual tossing of nicknames, namecards embody the giver's face, so their exchange involves care, especially among Sino-Thai.  Bowing slightly, you pass it with the right hand, or pinching the top corners so it faces the receiver, who handles it carefully.  Imagine the slur of writing on the front or the back, putting it away without a glance, especially into a back pocket.  With so much face at stake, no wonder Thais stick to nicknames.
Tim's full name is SangWan Saentham; I haven't yet discovered all the meanings behind it and her nickname (that will require learning more of each other's languages on both our parts; so many things left to learn...)