The more Thai people you meet and get to know, the more you’ll notice that they often have one syllable nicknames such as Mee, Jan or Noi, as well as a long-winded traditional name. Not only are the nicknames easier to remember and pronounce, but they often denote something about the person, such as their age or size. As with most things in Thai culture, there is much more to a name than just a few letters plucked at random. Read on to discover more about Thai nicknames.
Back in the day, Thailand had no clans, and as such, family or tribal names were not required. Only the Royal Family had official titles. These were long names taken from ancient Sanskrit. It was only in 1913, when naming became official for identification reasons, that Thais started to have formal family names.
Despite people rarely using formal names in Thailand, no two families can have the same surname. You’ll, therefore, be able to work out who is related to who with ease!
As an added status symbol, people sometimes choose to adapt their formal names, adding extra parts to seem more ‘royal’ or authoritative.
One of the main reasons for using a nickname in Thailand is to prevent malevolent spirits from meddling in your life; something that would be possible if they knew your real name. Historically, families may even choose a nickname with negative connotations such as ‘fat’ or ‘pig’ to lure the evil spirits away from their child.
Another reason for having a nickname in Thailand is that it can take some time to receive a formal name. Many families wait to consult with a monk, sage or revered family member before choosing one. Your name is thought to affect your whole life, so it’s a very important task. Rather than simply referring to the child as ‘baby’, families choose a nickname for the child for the interim period. This then sticks as a nickname for life.
If people have a major change or breakthrough in their life, they may also choose a new name to go by. In most cases, these better represent their new self or the changes they’ve been through.
Choosing a Nickname
There are loads of different methods for choosing a nickname, and this has progressed and shifted over time. Occasionally, the nicknames are a shortened form of the formal name, but more often than not, the nickname is chosen for one of the following reasons:
During the Sukhothai era, nicknames were often chosen to explain the child’s order of birth. This explains choosing Ake or Neung for first and Sorng for second. Nicknames were also used to denote different characteristics such as the size or color of the baby. For example, Noi (small) or Yai (big).
Later, during the kingdom of Ayutthaya, nicknames were chosen with positive connotations or desirable attributes such as strong, brave or smart.
Today, parents may choose names from nature such as Fa (sky) or Naam (water), or even seemingly quirky modern names such as Benz, Tiger or Mint. Some parents even choose a name simply because they think the world sounds nice, regardless of its English meaning!
In the south of Thailand, boys are sometimes given nicknames surrounding the word Kai, meaning egg (or in this case, testicles) such as Kai Nui or Kai Dum (I’ll leave you to research those meanings for yourself!).
Whatever the reason for Thai people choosing a nickname, it certainly makes it easier for us Westerners to learn their names and pronounce them correctly!
Cover: AIESEC Thailand