Background: Thai/Siamese Names

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Tags: Journey to Angkor Journey to Rai-Lay Journey's End

Posted in Background on October 18, 2011

I was talking about my latest work-in-progress, “Claiming David” (as I’m now calling it), over at Goodreads, and a comment from another poster led me to think maybe I should give some background on Thai names - and more importantly, nicknames - for those unfamiliar with the culture and history of the country formerly known as Siam.

Like people almost everywhere in the world, Thais have given names and family names. But it may surprise you to know that they’ve only officially had family names since 1913. Curiously, when surnames were introduced, the rule was that each family had to choose a distinct name. This is why Thais can have such long and difficult to pronounce surnames. In fact, one ‘tip’ I was given when I first came to work here was that surnames longer than four syllables indicated a family of Chinese origin. These ‘Thai-Chinese’ people were, according to my Thai-Chinese bosses, better workers that the ordinary Thai or Mon ethnic groups (Thai employers freely discriminate based on age, sex, ethnic group, and anything else they want.)

As for first names, Thais are given names by their parents. Sometimes these can be quite odd. For example, I once had a close friend whose proper name was ‘Bamroong’, which literally translates to ‘Maintain’. That’s an extreme case though. A more common given name is ‘Somchai’, which believe it or not means ‘Perfect Male’. Since surnames are a relatively recent innovation, people are always addressed by their first names in Thailand. This confuses some first-time visitors, when they get addressed as “Mr John” instead of “Mr Smith”.

Regardless of what first name they’re given, almost all Thais go by a nickname, which is almost always a single syllable. Traditionally these nicknames, also given by the parents, would be rather unflattering. ‘Moo’, which means ‘Pig’, was a very common name when I first came to Thailand. Animals actually abound when it comes to nicknames. ‘Shrimp’ and ‘Elephant’ are also common names.

The reason for the unflattering nicknames has to do with superstition. Despite most of them claiming to be Buddhists, Thais live in a world full of spirits. A lot of what Thais do in the guise of their religion is actually to appease these spirits and keep them from doing any harm. They give their children ‘ugly’ nicknames to keep the spirits from paying any attention to them. Apparently, bad spirits are only attracted to ‘pretty’ children.

Of course, some of the old traditions are slowing dying, and some Thai children aren’t too pleased with their nicknames when they get older. So, over the years, the nicknames I’ve encountered have changed. When I first came to Thailand in the boom years of the early 90s, I met a lot of college boys named ‘Benz’, ‘Bank’ and ‘Golf’. These days, I’m hearing a lot more variety. ‘Ball’ is still a popular nickname, as is ‘Tom’.

In my latest story, I used the name ‘Gun’ for one of my main characters, which seems to be more common these days. It isn’t an English adaptation, like some of the other popular names. Gun is one of those particles of Thai language that doesn’t have any direct translation, but means something like ‘together’. Another nickname I’m seeing more often is ‘Top’, but I thought that might be a little too implausible, even for a dominant.