In fact, this is not their “real” name; it’s a nickname. Every Thai person has one. There are various theories as to why this is so, but the one that seems to be widely accepted is that people in past generations believed that bad spirits could mess up your life if they knew your real name.
In these rather less superstitious times, use of the real name is generally restricted to more formal occasions or relationships, while friends or social equals will usually use nicknames.
On a more practical note, many Thai babies don’t get a “real” name until a monk or a respected member of the family has been consulted. Names are regarded as crucial to one’s future. The choice of name will usually be based on the time, date and various other factors surrounding the birth.
(Many Thais change their real names later in life – on the advice of a monk or fortune teller – when they have been going through a bad patch.)
So until you get a real name for your baby, what do you call him or her?
Well, you might plump for Ake or Neung, both of which mean “No 1”. Or if the child is your second, then Sorng (No 2) would be appropriate.
But these seem a little unimaginative. How about something a little more descriptive of the baby’s looks? Noi or Lek both mean “small”. Yai means big. Ouan means “fat”.
Or it might be that the baby has a reddish skin, in which case you could use Daeng, meaning “red”. Or Dum (black), Kieow (green) or Leuang (yellow).
But that’s still a bit dull, isn’t it? How about animal names? A fat baby, for example, might get called Moo (pig). Other common ones are Nok (bird), Pla (fish), Mee (bear), Gai (chicken), Noo (mouse), Pet (duck) or Jeab (baby chicken). Or even – and this would be for a really big kid – Chang (elephant).
Or perhaps aspects of nature: Fa (sky, or blue), Naam (water), Naamfon (rain), Dow (star), Jan (moon) or Fai (fire).
Or you might go for the name of a fruit. Try Som (orange) or Peun (apple). The second of these is an interestingly twisted use of the English word. In Thai, when there is an “L’ sound on the end of a word, it is pronounced as an N. So “apple” becomes “appeun”, which is then shortened, in speech, to Peun. But in written English, Thais spell it Ple. Clear?
Quite a few modern Thai nicknames are taken from English words that are seen as conferring desirable traits on the owner. Examples include Milk, Mint, Boy, Bank, Benz, Cartoon, Rose, Champ, Cream, Ball, Golf, Earth, Tiger and even – oddly – Yeast. A bubbly baby, perhaps.
And then there are the nicknames for boys in the south of Thailand, beginning with Kai, which can mean “egg” or, in this case, “testicles”. The second part is descriptive of the baby’s family jewels – dum for “black”, nui for “small”, laem for “pointy” and so on.
– Alasdair Forbes