This has to be the most frequently asked question from all my foreign friends. What’s with Thai names? Is your name really Anna? Tell me your real Thai name.
Why is it that Thai names are usually long, complicated, and hard to pronounce? The funny truth about our names is that not only do we struggle to pronounce the Thai names of our peers ourselves, but we also have absolutely no idea or understanding of the logic behind the complexity of Thai name-giving as well. Here, let me give you the basic cultural background before we start to dig in.
The Structure of Thai Names
First of all, Thais have first names, last names, and nicknames. We do not have middle names. Our nicknames are usually westernized words and have zero relation to our first or last names.
Let’s use my name as an example:
Surassa Fhaumnuaypol (Anna)
First name: Surassa
Last name: Fhaumnuaypol
You might be thinking, where in the world did the name Anna come from? As I said earlier, Thai people’s nicknames are usually not related to their first or last names, they are just made up and given to a person randomly by their parents. While first names are more intentional and sometimes given for religious reasons and usually contain good, meaningful words. This explains why you’ll be seeing a lot of ‘porn’ in Thai names because apparently, ‘porn’ means blessings and well wishes.
Because of the long, cumbersome nature of Thai first names, it is also very normal for Thai people to have known someone for a long time but never know their first name. I have a lot of friends that I have no idea what their first names are. You only use your first names for legal documents and in formal settings. In a daily conversation, it’s always the nickname that is used. So it is very common to have people in the office yelling “Is there a Patchaporn here?” even though they have worked with these people for months.
Why are Thai last names so long?
This is very interesting. In Thailand, family names are so long and unique because you are not supposed to have the same last name as someone if you’re not related. I find it so confusing to know that Western people have the same last names, like Smith or Jones all the time. Usually, if you have the same last names here, you are somehow in some way related (like distant cousins).
Additionally, it is also so easy for people to create their own last names too. This is because of religious, and sometimes personal superstitious reasons. The process of changing a name is not complicated to do and Thai laws have made it possible and even easy to do it multiple times. I know someone who has changed her name three times and is in the process of creating a fourth one just because the third one is starting to sound a little “boring”.
Interestingly, I’ve found out that it’s not common and even weird to change names in Western countries and this concept of regular name change is uncommon and confusing elsewhere. This might be the reason why Thais find it harder to get a visa or get stopped at airport customs because of their name change.
So to answer the question, why are Thai names so long?
This would be because people keep making unique names so that it’s not already taken by someone else. Usually, this requires adding more words making it longer. Another reason is coming back again to that religious and personal superstitious reasons. People find putting certain words or even phrases necessary in their names and to make it sound nice it might need a bit of this and that added.
Why are Thai nicknames so random and weird?
This is the most fun part of explaining the weird nature of Thai names. The nicknames. They are so weird and random. I can list you all the weird names and it’s not even covering half of the crazy names I have encountered. There is a person named Password who has a brother named, guess what, Username.
Common male names are Book, Bank, Boat, Oat, Benz, Win, Golf and the list goes on. While common female names can range from animals like Penguin, Jingjo (meaning kangaroo in Thai), Nok (meaning bird in Thai) to fruits like Apple, Cherry, Som (meaning orange in Thai) and Pear. Oh, Pear. It is so common to be called Pear here. There are even a number of names like One, Two, Three (sometimes Third), and Four. Another real-life example is of my friend whose name is Name, yes you read it right. And he has a twin sibling whose name is Nam, which means, guess what, name in Thai.
But why? I wouldn’t say it’s because we have lower English literacy or the parents just lack the creativity but I think it’s just the meaning of the word. As I stated earlier, Thai people take so much emphasis on the meaning of a word. Or even what the word symbolizes and represents. So, Book is a common male name because it symbolizes knowledge, intelligence, and academic excellence while Bank symbolizes wealth, money, and affluence. Since so many people are named this way, it just becomes normalized and super common to have the other person named this.
Let’s go back to looking at my name:
Surassa Fhaumnuaypol (Anna)
First name: Surassa
My first name is Surassa which means this is a given name by my parents. I don’t even know what Surassa means but it’s just a combination of my mother’s and father’s name. My mother’s name is Charisa while my father is Surachai. ‘Su’ in front comes from my father and ‘sa’ at the back comes from my mother. The ‘ras’ in between is just a nice touch to connect both syllables. I was really hard to raise as a kid so my mother went to ask a monk about my name, the monk said there are too many ‘s’ sounds in my name. In Thai, that ‘s’ sound represents the sound of the tiger alphabet and it means I’m vicious (lol). So to make me a better kid, she has to change my name to something with fewer ‘s’. Turns out my mother got lazy and never changed my name so I am still Surassa.
Last name: Fhaumnuaypol
I always get asked how to say my last name. It is Fa-um-nuay-pon. Fa means sky, um-nuay means provides, and pon means success. My last name literally is the easiest and most straightforward to understand. It means the sky brings you success. As easy and simple as that. How did you get this last name? My grandparents created it. Yes, it only goes back to two generations. This is because we are Chinese immigrants who moved before World War II from Mainland China and to assimilate, we create a Thai last name instead of using the Chinese last name like Chen.
My family’s Chinese last name is Chen. This is very common in the Thai-Chinese community. Sometimes they also contain their Chinese family name in their new Thai name. Like a person whose Chinese family name is Tung can create a Thai last name like Tungwatee. Or for those who are less creative, they just go with Sae-Tung. Sae (แซ่) means Chinese name. Sae-Tung means Chinese name Tung. Surassa Sae-Tung would translate into Surassa which has a Chinese name of Tung.
Some people are not even aware of funny Thai nicknames when they know me because I have such a Westernized name. But it’s not always that way.
Initially, my name is Ant.. like the little ant. Because I’m the youngest so I represent a little animal. But as I grew up, I got bigger and well, not small like an ant anymore and my mother also feels like it’s more endearing to put ‘na’ at the back. Therefore, my nickname becomes ‘Antna‘. Of course, when I went to an international school, Antna becomes Anna. And there we go, the story of my nickname. I was even told that my mom was going to nickname me America because apparently, that was where I was conceived (TMI, Mom).
My siblings also have very funny nicknames. My father’s nickname is On, my mother’s nickname is Oh, and my oldest brother’s nickname is Oct to represent the month he was born which is.. you guessed it, October. While my sister’s nickname is Oil. DO NOT LAUGH. Oil is actually very common but I have yet to understand why.
Notice that all of our family members have the letter O as the first letter for their nicknames. Oct, Oil, Ong, Anna. But, where does Anna come from, you ask? But I was supposed to be Ant, remember? Oct, Oil, Ong, Ant. It’s supposed to have a /o/sound, Ant in Thai has the same alphabet (อ) as the rest of my sibling’s nicknames so I’m not that much of a black sheep after all.
Thai names, there are difficult to understand and so prone to bullies. But isn’t it fascinating to know about this and learn about the culture of Thai people in the process? They take a great emphasis on superstition showing just how much we are in touch with religion and fate.
I hope this answers a lot of your questions and I had fun explaining this one. Let me know if there’s anything else you want me to explain about Thai culture. I am making a new series and I would love to have it keep coming!
For those who want to learn more about Thai culture, I have another post on the language itself here. Let me know what else you guys would like me to explain more about and I really appreciate everyone’s enthusiastic feedback and comments on this! Keep it coming 🙂
So I realized this blew up and went viral on Thai Twitter (which I’m sadly not a part of) and I have found many interesting comments. Some suggested a funnier name they found like Gymnastics, Hotmail to Gentleman *cries*. Some also suggested that Thai people like to use common words to name their babies back in the old days like the names of the colors: Dum (Black), Daeng (red), Kiew (green). Another funny one I forgot to mention is Jim, which means vagina in Thai HAHHAHAHA but it’s a shorter version of Joom-Jim which means little so no Thai parents aren’t that mean! It’s funnier when there are two Jims and they distinguish them as Jim Yai (big vagina) and Jim Lek (small vagina) *facepalm*
Also, more interesting discussions to be found on this topic on Reddit here