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Spirit of Thailand

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Names in Thailand Are Another Story

Please, anything but your real name!

Would you mind being called a “pig” or a “buffalo”? I didn’t think so. But lots of people in Thailand are called just that and some other names that seem very strange to us. Thais have first and last names like we do, but they are often four or five syllables long and, at least for us, impossible to pronounce, what to speak of remember.

It was not always like that. A few generations ago Thai names were much shorter and simpler. Recently it has become fashionable to take on those monstrosities of names. The Thais actually had to come up with a law that limits the amount of syllables that a name can have. Otherwise those enthusiastic name creators would have made any official business a syllable nightmare. It is quite easy to change your name in Thailand. Don’t like it, no problem, pick another one. It is a relatively simple procedure.

Nicknames to the rescue

Luckily most Thais have nicknames which are the opposite of those never-ending legal names. They are mostly only one syllable long and sometimes only one letter. In some cases the Thais pick any one syllable of their legal name and use that as their nickname – it could be the first, last, or middle syllable, it does not matter.

Many nicknames are strange to our taste. There is Ms Pig, Mr. Buffalo, Mr. Dog, or Ms Bomb. How do they come up with those names? Here are the actual stories of friends of mine here in Thailand.

Descriptive nicknames

One girl I know is called “pig”. While that is considered an insult in the west, she was called that since she was  a somewhat round baby with a good share of baby fat, and therefore was called ‘pig’. Thais think that this is a rather cute name. Of course if the girl decides one day that she does not like her nickname anymore, she can simply change it.

Another acquaintance of mine is called “dog”. When he was a little boy, he was a real chatterbox to the point of getting on people’s nerves. That reminded his family and friends of the yapping of a dog, so ‘dog’  became his nickname.

Magical nicknames

One man was always sickly as a boy and could never shake his various illnesses. So the people in his village decided to call him buffalo, which is a strong animal. There is even a saying ‘strong as a buffalo’. In his case it worked, the constant illnesses vanished and he lived up to his name.

But you really have to know the story behind the name since ‘buffalo’ in Thailand can also be an insult. They are considered quite stupid animals. “Stupid like a buffalo” is a derogatory way to talk about someone.

Colorful nicknames

The nickname of another friend of mine is: “Green” . She ended up with this name since as a baby she supposedly had a greenish complexion, and that became her name. Today, 40 years later, she looks anything but green, however she still goes by the same name.

Dreamtime nicknames

A good friend of mine once had a dream. She went to a temple with her sister in law and a monk wanted to give a large beautiful precious stone to her sister in law. But she did not want it and told the monk to give it to her friend instead who accepted it gratefully. Then she awoke from the dream and discovered that she was pregnant. So she named the baby girl “Ploy”, the Thai name for ‘precious stone’. Her sister in law did not want to become pregnant, so the passing of the stone was very symbolic for my friend.

Truly creative nicknames

The same woman has a son who was born during the Iran-Iraq war. The Thai media was full of reports of bombing. Since she had not been able to decide on a good nickname for her newborn son, she just called him “bomb”.

Meaningless nicknames

But not all nicknames have meanings. Some are just single letters like O (pronounced Oh) , E (sounds more like the English pronounciation of  ‘A’), B (pronounced ‘bee’) or D (pronounced ‘dee’).

Western names are all the rage nowadays

More recently it has become fashionable to use western names like ‘cat’ or ‘joy’ as nicknames, as long as they consist of only one syllable.

Some Thais use their legal first names, but the majority have nicknames. When you meet a Thai, they will generally introduce themselves with their nicknames. However strange some of those nicknames appear to us, they are a blessing in disguise since we would never be able to understand, repeat or remember most of those convoluted legal names that the Thais like so much.

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