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Thai 101 Learners Series: Pigs and Bombs go Hand in Hand

Thai 101 Learners Series

The Thais have nicknames too…

This week I’ll give you a break from my normal spiel on the linguistic nuts and bolts of the Thai language and do something a bit lighter. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Thailand, you’re bound to have noticed that Thais have very colorful nicknames. Common Thai nicknames include อ้วน (Ooan, meaning fat) and หมู (Moo, meaning pig). I know at least half a dozen people named แดง (Daeng, red).

In Thai culture, a person’s nickname is generally chosen by the parents at birth and is used throughout their life. Thai nicknames are different from legal names. The legal name usually comes from Pali and Sanskrit words, with careful attention given to attach an auspicious meaning. Often parents will ask a trusted monk to choose the name for a child on their behalf.

Nicknames, on the other hand, have their own logic. Ooan was probably a podgy baby, while Moo was likely born in the Year of the Pig and Daeng may have had a ruddy complexion at birth. My wife’s nickname is เก้า (Kao, the word for nine) because she was born at 9 am on the 19th day of the 9th Thai month.

Nicknames are an interesting part of Thai culture. Thais have a fondness for changing their given names, often for astrological reasons. My mother-in-law changed her name the year she retired. At the advice of a fortune teller, an aspiring Thai weightlifter changed her name from Junpim Kuntatean to Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon before going on to smash an Olympic record in the 53-kilogram women’s clean-and-jerk and return home with a gold medal.

While some Thais are known to change their formal names many times in the course of a lifetime, nicknames usually stick. Sure, I know people who have changed their nicknames, but I know more who have changed their legal name and kept the nickname. The nickname is so integral to Thai culture that longtime acquaintances may know each other only by their nickname.

In recent decades, though, a new trend has developed. More and more Thai nicknames are coming from English. First, a few popular ones. I would be surprised if you don’t know anyone with one of these names.

For boys: แบงค์ (Bank); เบิร์ด (Bird); ก็อฟ (Golf)

For girls: โบว์ (Bow); กิ๊ฟ (Gift); โรส (Rose)

When you first run into some of these nicknames, it can be comical. But after a while, you don’t even bat an eye when you run into a person named Cartoon or Fluke. There’s a certain perceived cachet to English names. English is cool. It’s different. No matter how many Banks there are, there are still boatloads more Thai people named Moo and Daeng. So it’s a way to be unique.

Maybe too unique. I’ve run into some very, well, creative nicknames. I knew a fellow who worked as a baker and I thought for a long time his son was named East, until one day he corrected me to say no, the boy’s name is ยีสต์ (Yeast). It was a word he knew through his profession and he liked the sound of it.

Another time, I met a Muslim man who had given his son the nickname ก๊อด (God). He was proud of the name and saw it as a sign of his strong faith in his religion. I don’t even want to think of how that would go over in my conservative American hometown if this kid became an exchange student there.

And it’s not just Thailand. When I was in the fourth grade, a boy named Percy moved into my town. He had emigrated from China with his parents and we were in the same class at school.

My best friend, who lived next door to the family, asked Percy why he chose that name. My friend swore that the response was that he liked Pepsi and Percy was close to Pepsi. My nine-year-old mind thought for sure my friend was pulling my leg.

Well, now that I’ve lived in Thailand for a while, I’m inclined to believe him. I’ve met more than one Pepsi. I’ve also met เบ็นซ (Benz), เฟิร์สท (First), สต็อป (Stop), ไทเกอร์ (Tiger), ฟิวส์ (Fuse), เบียร์ (Beer), มิ้นท์ (Mint), ไอซ์ (Ice) and many more. I’ve heard of such names as มาเฟีย (Mafia) and ไฮเนเก้น (Heineken).

Gwyneth Paltrow has a daughter named Apple. If she ever comes to Thailand, she’ll fit right in.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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21 Comments

  1. Ive come across a lot of people nicknamed Porn, Beer and Oat. What perplexes me still is my girls nickname which is Pooki. I still haven’t gotten a good explanation for that one. That’s ok because she doesn’t understand me when I ask her where Gumby is.

  2. Rikker and Catherine, greetings from someone who should have perhaps been given the nickname of Overdraft at birth. A very interesting subject this one and the modern day use of English words especially so. I haven’t come across a Wose or Bank yet but my ears will be trained to suit from now on. The given nickname based on as you put it…’Ooan was probably a podgy baby, while Moo was likely born in the Year of the Pig’….is not too dissimilar to the old way that the western world gained surnames. Baker was indeed a baker and Smith a blacksmith, so there is a lot of reasoning behind it. I wonder if there are three kids knocking around together named Ice, Beer and Heineken. They may need a Bank to help them out one day.

  3. Talen, ‘Pooki’ is so cute! I’ve known a lot of Porns too. One of the first Thai students I met was called Wanna Porn. I had a very difficult time with that one.

    Martyn, ‘Overdraft’… hah! I know that one from the UK. Everyone I knew in Scotland was on overdraft of some degree or the other. Yet another reason for hightailing it back to SE Asia, where the cost of living is manageable.

    I belonged to a theatre group in my teens. Over time, each member earned their nic name. Mine was Toe Jam. We were painting a set into the early morning hours. Around 3am, I tripped over a can of purple paint and traipsed it around the floor before realising. Gawd, I haven’t thought of that nic for years.

  4. Ha! Love the idea of best friends traipsing around with the names Beer, Heineken, and Ice.

    I think my parents had more than one nickname for me as a kid, occasionally employed. But I would’ve been mortified if they used them in public. The only one that comes to mind now is “Boysenberry”, because I was the first (and eventually only) boy among my siblings.

    A Thai friend also once tried to give me the nickname ดอกกะหล่ำ Dok-kalum (“cauliflower”), because of the similarity to my last name. Fortunately it died off, but every Thai who heard it seemed to find it hilarious. So there are definitely things that Thais consider to be strange nicknames, too!

  5. So, what’s a cauliflower to a Thai? Is it the shape? Or the name?

  6. They just find it funny to have as one’s name, I suppose, in the same way that “Golf” or “Mafia” is to an English speaker.

  7. Cat, Pooki’s sisters nick is Boom and her 2 Aunts on Papa’s side are Beer and Porn. When I first met them I thought ” hmmm…beer and porn, kinda like the Reese’s peanutcbutter cup of depravity”

    The one odd one out in the family has the nickname of Jane…not sure where that came from. Even the dog has a nickname…C lo

  8. Hi Rikker, that makes sense. And the Thais do have a running sense of humour, so it fits. I like the name Jeep (the sound a bird makes). Pong is a good one too (I named my Siamese Pong before realising what it meant). My maid’s name is Koong (prawn). My Thai nic is Maew (cat).

    Talen, Beer and Porn? The Reese’s peanutcbutter cup of depravity? Hah! That’s great! So, what are you called when you are in Thailand?

    Maybe she was called Jane at a time when she was around more foreigners? I have a wonderful Thai friend who asked to be called Joe, but only when he’s around westerners. His Thai family and friends call him something else.

  9. Cat, By the immediate family I am called Tim (finally)while the rest of the family continue to call me falang.

  10. Catherine Wentworth

    September 5, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Falang? Is that the up country way? I’m not sure if I’d appreciate being called falang.

    Hmmm… thinking… maids, taxi drivers, shop girls, etc, call me Madam. I was able to stop the usage when living in Borneo, but it seems ingrained in Bangkok. The man of the house is called sir, and he often receives correspondence from Thais starting off with ‘Dear Christ’.

  11. I don’t take offense at being called farang, but I don’t like it when people use it like it’s my name.

    There’s actually a very common nickname แหม่ม, for Thai girls, that is from English Ma’am. Apart from the nickname, the same word is also used as a noun meaning a white woman. For instance, the headline from this story from May this year:

    สนั่นถนนข้าวสาร ยิง 3ศพ! แหม่มสาวเจ็บด้วย
    sanan thanon khao saan ying saam sop! maem saao jep duai
    “Three dead on Khao San Road! Young white woman also injured.”

  12. That’s what I meant – using farang as a name. I know some westerners get upset being called farang but I take it as being similar to calling a Thai a Thai or an Asian. But… I would not call a Japanese person a Jap due to past misuse making it a derogatory concern (which is why some people object to being called farang :-D

    Madam (mame) with white used for white women makes total sense. Which is why I like Thai as there are all sorts of these common sense happenings running through the language.

  13. The thing I found strangest in this post was someone changing their full name for astrological reasons, but keeping the same nickname.

    Can you imagine the reaction to someone in the English speaking world who did that?

    What that says to me is that the nickname is far more important.

  14. Good point on the astrology aspects. I’m not into astrology so even thinking about it making a dent in my life is more than strange!

    Western women change their names (last anyway). In some countries, when a women gets married they can legally change any part of their name on the official paperwork, no prob.

    When I was born, my mother told the nurse what my name was to be, but the nurse wrote it down using the wrong spelling. When I was informed as a teen it bothered me. The first chance I got to change it legally (without extra cost), I did. While I was there, I changed my middle name too.

    I might be wrong, but I believe Thais change their nics more often than their real names. Hopefully Rikker knows if that is true or not?

  15. I could be wrong, but in my personal experience, more Thais I know (or know of) have changed their legal first names than have changed their nicknames.

    Arbitrarily changing last names is rare these days, though in the past it was common, since beginning in the early 20th century law Thai law has required Thai citizens to have a meaningful Thai first and last name. That meant immigrants (and their offspring) had to change their names.

    My father-in-law was already grown when he selected his Thai first name (his father immigrated to Thailand from China in 1916). He and his siblings sat down together and chose what would become the family surname. Since redundant surnames were not allowed by law, when they went to the registration office they learned their first choice had been taken, so they chose another one and tried again.

    I have copies of the various Thai naming laws throughout recent history, but I have not had the time to read them in detail (or translate them, which I hope to find time to do). It’s a fascinating look into the past, to see what the intensely xenophobic government deemed fit to allow its subject to call themselves.

    Even today, though, minority groups which do not traditionally use surnames are assigned a uniform Thai surname. When I visited the Surin Islands, off the coast of Phang-Nga in the Andaman Sea, I visited the local school for the native Moken people, who the Thais call ชาวเล “sea people”. At the front of the classroom was a board listing the students’ names. Every one of them had the same assigned Thai surname — กล้าทะเล “sea brave”, which was chosen for them by the Princess Mother herself. Interesting, I think.

    There was even a point during at which the government tried to gender assign particular names, so that names like แดง daeng “red” could only be used by either men or women — I can’t remember which it was. This was during the same era of such other unpopular laws as simplifying Thai spelling and forcing Thais to use only the pronouns ฉัน chan and ท่าน than. This was also the era during which สวัสดี sawatdee was introduced and mandated as the new universal greeting/farewell.

  16. Rikker, apologies, I got all wrapped up in the comments, totally forgetting what went before.

    I should already know this, but do Thai women change their last name when they get married? Or is it optional? I have Thai friends who married westerners who kept their Thai names, but I believe that was due to the laws in Thailand at the time (they didn’t want to lose their rights to own property in Thailand).

    I was told that the later someone came into Thailand (for instance, the Chinese arriving in the last century or so) then the longer their approved name as the rest were all taken… unless they were royals that is (and royals have humongously long names). If this is true, then the original Thais have the shortest names. But now that I’ve read about your Sea Braves, that can’t be absolutely so.

    Thank you for mentioning the Sea Braves. They are yet another Thai people I need to check out.

  17. It’s amazing how often cheu len names chosen are simply impossible for the Thais to pronounce, so I have no idea what they actually are… eg Oat, Earth, Boat and God.

    The local electrician’s children here in our Surin village are Fuse, Plug and Switch. Fuse of course comes out as ‘Fee-ew’ and the others are equally difficult.

    In my book, “My Thai Girl and I”, I wrote about how confusing it is when a neighbours’ family are called Bee, Boh, Boom, Bieu and Best. Not to mention Jook, Jim, Jin, Jap and Jaq.

    I’m still struggling to sort them all out!

    Thanks for the articles.

    Andrew Hicks

  18. Catherine Wentworth

    September 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Hi Andrew, and welcome to WLT. ‘Fuse, Plug and Switch’ – how hilarious!

    A former governor of Texas had the same sense of humour as the Thais when he named his daughter Ima.

    He was the infamous ‘Big Jim’ Hogg.

    She went on to be a respected leader in her own right, so it didn’t do any harm.

    (The rumours of a sister named Yura were just that… rumours)

  19. they do have a great sense of humour but its sometimes lost on me but i still laugh don’t know way
    my wife nick is noi and she suits it she is short compared to me but packs a good Maui Thai kick
    when i first arrived i thought the nicknames where there real names
    for the first couple of weeks but you can understand why they shorten them

  20. John, I laugh when I’m clueless too. But I love to laugh and find Thai laughter infectious so it’s a match. The laughter is one of the many reasons I moved here. I’ve always thought that when I quit laughing, I’ll leave.

    I had the pleasure of nine years with Thai students in a neighbouring country before I landed in Thailand, so things such as names had already been figured out. Sort of. The various versions of Porns still give me the giggles though, and that’s quite fine by me :-D

  21. Hi Rikker,

    When we were in Thailand in the summer of 2005 we met up with a guy from Ayuthaya whose name was Fray. I ask him where it came from and he said “Fray Dunaway”. Apparently his mom loved Faye Dunaway and that’s why she gave him that nickname. I was like, “did you know that Faye Dunaway is a woman?” He did – so what? Then I asked if he knew that her name was “Faye” and not “Fray”? He was like, “Faye, Fray, what’s the difference?” Indeed. It made me laugh.

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