From: "Thailand: Revealing Perspective." Bangkok: Khumson Books.
1994. pp. 25-32
“Names” is an interesting topic to me, and I feel that the study of
names can be really intriguing. During my four years of writing a
weekly column called “This Precious Life” for Bangkok World, an evening
newspaper, a reader, a foreigner, wrote asking me to write about Thai
names. He said: “English and European names seem to be very
limited in number—the proverbial Tom, Dick and Harry. The
Americans opened up the field a little with Dwight, Lyndon, Spiro and
others, but not by all that much. By contrast, Thai first names
seem to be infinite in number. Moreover they appear to have
transcendental meanings compared to English which are very largely
copied from kings and queens, or are biblical.”
There are many reasons as to why Thai first names are so
innumerable. But before I go into this, let me tell you
something. At one time, my parents were going to name me A-ngun,
which means grape. Then they thought it over and called me Pensri
which means “the goodness and beauty of the moon”. After I did an
extensive research about name-choosing among Thai people, I was really
glad that I was not called “Grape”, something sweet, but edible and not
Thai names are fascinating for a number of reasons which you will see
as you read on. To begin with, the language consists mainly of
kham-dodes or monosyllables. For example, saeng means light and
dao means star. We only have to put Saengdao together to get a
concise pretty name, “Starlight.” Here is another example: Som
means proper or as and chi tmeans mind or heart. Put Somchit
together and we have a name which tells you that the child is as
intended, or as desired by her parents’ hearts, a great
compliment. It is by no means easy for a non-Thai to find such a
name with such significance, without it being too long, too clumsy or
too big a mouthful. And this may be the main reason why Western
people have not been able to give their imagination free play with the
name of children as Thais can. Phawta, another pretty name is a
clear example of this. It means “pleasing to the eye” and is an
appropriate name for a Thai lady to give her daughter if she is good
looking. But I don’t think an English lady would name her
daughter “Pleasing-to-the-eye.” She could however be as
imaginative and colourful as her Thai friends and call her daughter
“Pleasantlook”, but Europeans, Americans and many other nationalities
have never really developed this method of naming their children.
Our stock of names is further enriched by the use of prefixes and
suffixes. There are some words that by themselves do not mean
much in particular, but when used as prefixes can changes the meanings
of the words they precede. For example, kob means gather while
praokob means put together or consists of, and cham means remember
while pracham means regularly.
We can also create numerous attractive names by adding a suffix.
For example, ngarm means beautiful and chit means heart. Add dee
(good) to each and we have names like Ngarmdee and Chitdee meaning
nicely beautiful and good in the heart.
There are several things to take into account when selecting a
name. Here are a few guidelines.
For boys, we take names of leading male characters accepted as having
lasting literary value, for example, Khun Phaen and Chittasen. We
combine monosyllables evidently indicating the males sex: Piyabutr
(father’s son) and Somchair (befitting a man or manly). We also
may use adjectives indicating male qualities such as strength and
bravery, usually associated with the male sex. Klahan (brave),
Khemkhaeng (strong) and Channarong (experienced in warfare) are good
examples of this. We also use terms representing something
strong, important or high. Thinnakorn, Phanumas and Phassakorn
are popular names. They all mean the sun.
We use words meaning weapons, Puenthai (Thai gun), Thuanthong (Golden
Spear) and A-wut (Weapon).
Choosing names for girls is even more complicated. There are so
many things to consider. There are words indicating female
qualities such as those having to do with looks: Chimlin (cute),
Chailai (pretty) and Lawan (beautiful). Or those concerning melody:
Phairoh and Sanoh both mean “sweet and pleasant to the ear.”
There are words describing scent, taste, softness, gentleness and
mildness. Sukhon (lovely smell) and Hom (fragrant), Waan (sweet)
and Chuenchai (refreshing). Unfavourable tastes like Khom
(bitter) or Faad (sappy) are not used. Nuan, Num, Nim, Lamun and
Lamai all mean soft and fine in texture. Num and Nim are alright
when used separately. However, if you put them together and call
someone Numnim, she will resent it because the meaning is no longer
soft but softish or pulpish.
Words which are names of ornaments and jewellery are also associated
with girls. Waen (ring), Sroy (chain), and Kamlai (bracelet) are
a few examples. There is also Karawek (a kind of bird), Kwang
(deer), and Phueng (bee) as well as words which are names of flowers or
flowering trees: Kulap (rose), Mali (jasmine), and Champa, Montha,
Yikheng, Ratri, Lanthom, all of which are names of flowers found in
Thailand; not to mention words which simply mean flower: Kosum, Buppha,
Bussaba and Malee. Words which are names of fruit are also
popular. Taeng (melon), Thurian (durian), Som (orange) and good
old A-gun (grape) which nearly became my name! Like boys, girls
are often named after leading female characters from well-known
literature: Kanha, Rojjana, and Laweng. Finally, there are words
which just happen to be used as girls’ names: Ngam-chit (good heart)
and Pen-chan (full moon).
Apart from choosing names according to modern trends and practice as I
have described, we also choose names according to the advice of
astrologers, their beliefs and their rules, thus adding even more to
our already colossal accumulation of names.
If you choose to consult a monk or an astrologer, he will ask for your
child’s birth year, month, date, day of the week and
time-o-landing.’ Then he will let you choose what you desire or
covet most for your little one. Is it attendants, longevity,
power, riches, property, industry, support or bad luck? Of
course, the last item is not likely to be chosen by anyone, but if you,
not knowing the rules, choose a name for your child yourself, you may
unwittingly use a consonant or a vowel that is kallakini to him, which
will give him bad luck throughout his life. Kallakini means bad
luck, or ill fate.
If you desire two good features for your child, you will be given two
groups of consonants to choose from. If you become greedy in the
process and covet attendants as well as riches, longevity and power,
your child may have to shoulder a name like
Suriyadejasuriyupparakha. (I shall not even try to translate it)
with the consonants s, y, p, and k answering for those four
purposes. If you have a friend whose name used to be Banham and
suddenly found it changes to Wichai and the ‘c’ is for charm.
It is believed that all vowels are kallakini to all girls born on
Monday. So you will find many Thai girls born on Monday bearing
names without vowels, like Sklwrrn pronounced Sakonwan and Rmy
pronounced Rom because the “y” is mute. This is possible in the
Thai language because the consonants can give the sound of vowels.
A fact that may surprise you is that in the old days some people gave
their children ugly names such as Black, Dog, Shorty and Smelly.
This is because in those days, little was known about diseases and
medicines. Whenever babies died young, it was whispered that the
devil took them away. People believed that the devil was
attracted by their babies being so beautiful, cuddly and
innocent. One way to make the babies less enticing to the devil
was by giving them repulsive, ugly names.
When a Thai man becomes a monk, he surrenders his name for the period
of monkhood and is given a new name, usually of serene, peaceful and
noble meaning to help him lead a good, peaceful life. Monks’
names are long to write even in Thai and I will not attempt to write
them in English. However, I can tell you about their
meanings. The popular ones usually have the following meanings:
one who leaves all worries; one at peace; one with unwavering
principles; one who feels no sadness; and one who gives light.
Northeastern Thais show their high and artistic taste not only in names
of people, but also in those of places. Travelling in Northeast
Thailand, you may come across places like Rattanaburi (Golden City),
Suwannabhum (Golden Region), Mukdahan (Moonstone), Dejudom (Rich in
Power), Trakan-pheuchphon (Fertile) and so on. Central Thais are
not as gifted in this way. As a result, in and around Bangkok, we
have places with names like Bang Ee Kreng now slightly improved to Bang
Nang Kreng but still meaning ‘High-strung Woman.’ Wat Ling Khop
(Biting Monkey Temple) and Thung Ma Hon (Howling Dog Plain) are
two more uncomplimentary names.
Ask a man where he comes from. As soon as he says “Howling Dog
Plain,” doesn’t he seem to lose a certain amount of dignity?