What's in a name?
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What's in a name?

Thais have used many methods for naming over the years - and now, as a new era dawns, the choices are as irrational and arbitrary as ever

For "smooth cultural integration", Thai international study agency Smart NZ Education advises that students with nicknames like Poo, Pee and Porn consider alternatives. The issue made headlines earlier last month after a report by the New Zealand Herald indicated that students might get "harassed if nothing is done". That's not unlikely, despite the fact that "faeces", "urine" and "pornography" -- the formal English words for the aforementioned nicknames -- weren't exactly those parents' intention when their children first came into the world.

The incident is in fact just another example of a long-standing point for light-hearted jokes, social awkwardness or even downright offence to English-speaking foreigners in Thailand. All this results from some unfortunate cases of homophonics.

Those examples are just a few among many popular Thai names that end with "porn" and "chit", and there are also odd nicknames (to non-Thais) like Moo (pig), Nok (bird), Gop (frog) or Chang (elephant), and we haven't even ventured outside the animal category.

The idiosyncrasy of Thai names, however, is much more complex than that. Their evolution dates back to the Sukhothai era, when names were simply meant to mark order among relatives, and to the time of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, when gender-based naming was introduced. Now naming relies heavily on astrological belief and keeping up with the fashion.

Life talked with Asst Prof Somchai Sumniengngam, of Silpakorn University's Faculty of Arts, who has researched and written extensively on the subject, in an attempt to unravel the beauty and oddness of Thai names.

Assigning order and fending off ghosts

In the Sukhothai era, names of ordinary people were rarely written down in official records, but it is known that names were just a means of giving order to the children in the family. For example, names like Ai, Yee and Sam for the first, second and third child, respectively, according to the words' meanings in Thai. There was also Ram, meaning "beautiful", to reflect the spirit of a time when the city was being greatly developed.

"In the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin eras," explained Somchai, "people were starting to be named according to their physical attributes, like Daeng [red], Dum [black] and Gon [chunk], or after objects in everyday life like fruits or trees."

Odd names, some of which we still have today, like Aueng (bullfrog), Kiad (a small frog), Mha (dog) or Moo (pig) result from a Thai belief that babies are born from ghosts, with such unpleasant names meant to fool and discourage spirits from taking back the babies.

Good blessing and class

The early Rattanakosin era saw people opting for names with auspicious and favourable meanings like Thong (gold) and Ngern (silver), or Boon (merits). All the while, names had always been monosyllabic until they started to clash. There were so many Boons, Thongs and Ngerns that eventually names like Boonmee and Boonma started to come along, presumably as shortened forms of "Boon who is the son of Mee" and "Boon who is the son of Ma".

By the Rattanakosin era, the influence of the Pali and Sanskrit languages had been around for quite some time. Names of kings and other royals since late Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were long and grand, through these languages' words and word combinations. In early stages, ordinary people avoided these out of respect and modesty. In the Rattanakosin era, however, the educated started to take up those languages when coming up with names.

"After the Siamese Revolution of 1932, we saw people of the lower and middle classes start opting for longer names, in an attempt to achieve a sense of equality among people of higher classes," said Somchai. "In terms of names and class, research has found that students from well-known private schools tend to have longer names than those from state schools."

Somchai explained that after a while, this trend was starting to shift. Lower- and middle-class people started to go for longer names while those in the upper class, in an attempt to shift away from that, went back to monosyllables. It is expected that this trend will shift continually.

Astrology and gender-based naming

One of the most pivotal factors in the evolution of Thai names are the astrological principles introduced by King Rama IV or King Mongkut. Well-versed in the subject, the King would name his children through Namtaksapakorn, an ancient scripture that illustrates the principles of naming through astrological belief.

The tradition is as strong as ever, as people still consult this scripture. Using birth date as the basis, the book suggested what alphabet letters to use for the names of newborns, or what to avoid if some letters for particular days are bad luck. For people born on Monday, for instance, vowels are not recommended because, if that's person's career is going well, their family affairs will go wrong, or the other way around.

"My theory is that people resort to this type of method because they just need something to rely on," said Somchai.

"Life is uncertain, and what we can turn to is something invisible. The tradition of naming for good meaning has long been there. And then there's astrology. Now, some people would even change the spelling of their names because some believe each alphabet has a particular level of strength, measured by numbers. Changing the spelling would get them the desired number, after adding up all the letters in the name."

Five years ago, 26-year-old Siwat Ananthammachai, along with his parents and sister, changed not only their first names but their last name. He said that at the time there wasn't anything wrong with their lives, but some said their names were bad luck and the family was just no longer happy with the old names.

"It's like moving to a new house or changing your car," said Siwat. "This is not to say that I rely on this kind of belief completely. Did life become better after? I can't answer that. Perhaps I just felt better when people started calling me by my new name."

Another defining factor for the evolution of Thai names came with the cultural revolution during the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, with its attempt to civilise the nation.

From this period on, people started to adopt names suggestive of gender -- for example, names ending with "-chai", "-sak" and "-yot" are for males, while those with "-porn" or "-sri" are for females.

Present-day creativity

No one could have foreseen what would follow the tradition that began during Sukhothai merely as a means of marking order among relatives. Names like Moo and Nok still exist, but they are used as nicknames and not favoured by newer generations. There's no one theory that can explain the types of names and nicknames we come across these days. The nicknames take the form of such monikers as Man U, Liverpool, Uefa, Perfect, Ben 10, One-Man-Show, Nuclear, Internet, Google and Big Mac.

Thirty-nine-year-old Tridate Sribhanasakulchai's nickname, for instance, is Porsche, and his two children's are Bugatti and Lamborghini. But this tradition goes a bit farther back. Tridate's older brothers' nicknames are Benz and Alfa (from Alfa Romeo), and their children's nicknames, naturally, include Martin (from Aston Martin), Ferrari and Mati (from Maserati).

"It's something that connects us more than ordinary siblings' names," said Tridate. "It's something that makes us feel united and it's a tradition that can go on until our grandchildren's generation."

For names, the trend doesn't just stop at the principles of Namtaksapakorn. Somchai said that some people will even go for how it looks when written down, even if the words when put together seem to have no meaning. One great example is a name like Raranrorn, which in Thai is written with six similar letters together -- making it look very striking visually but giving it no particular meaning.

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