In Thailand we tend to refer to each other by nickname, or chue len. Almost everyone has one. In days gone by our first or individual names were short and mostly monosyllabic, such as Nai Khaow, “Mr. White,” or Nang Mhai, “Mrs. New.” Even the names of monarchs were generally simple before they were enthroned. For example, King Rama II was born as ‘Shim’, whereas his royal or official title ran to almost three-lines.
Today there are no hard and fast rules for nicknames in Thailand. Anything goes, so as in the West, Thai nicknames can derive from an abbreviation of a full first name. Hence where Liz, Liza, Beth or Betty spring from Elizabeth, here first names such as Chanchira can become Chan (the Moon) or Phol (strength or energy) from Akhraphol.
That said, it is the case that most Thai nicknames have nothing to do with one’s first name at all. Simply for ease of remembrance, parents may well give multiple children sequential nicknames based on letters of the alphabet, i.e. beginning with A, B, C or D, or, as is a popular tradition in some families, nicknames beginning with the same letter – think Dtim, Dtom and Dtam or the more contemporary Gift, Golf and Gap, all very reminiscent of the characters Ping, Pong and Pang from the opera Turandot.
The most familiar nicknames are given based on physical traits or a facet of a child’s character. Words that describe height, size, shape and complexion are used such as Lek (small), Ouan (fat), Yai (big), Nid (little), and Daeng or Dum (red or dark, as in complexion). They can also be given based on order of birth, hence Dton (beginning or first), Ghlang (middle), and Noi (minor). Sometimes the order can be based on something as obvious as numbers, such as Nueng (one), Song (two), Saam (three) and Sii (four) but in a globalised world, A, B, C and D are also used.
The names of colours, animals, plants and food are also widely used for nicknames. Khiew (green) and Som (orange) are common, while Pink is fashionable for a girl. Nicknames like Pae (goat), Ghai (chicken), Nok (bird), Noo (mouse), Pla (fish), Ghob (frog), Maew (cat), Dtai (as in ghra-dtai or rabbit) and Poo (crab) are all well used too. However, while you can call someone Mhuu (pig), you can never call them Mhaa (dog) because of the negative connotations relating to dogs within Thai culture.
Mali (Jasmine), Noi Nhaa (custard apple), Dtal (sugar palm), Petch (diamond) and Ploy (gem) all sound sweet, dainty and precious. But if you want more stylish and internationalised names, you can opt for Fern, Rose, Peach, (Ap)Ple or Opal among others. Several other cutesy names come from food, especially desserts, such as Cake, Cookie, Cupcake, and Pancake. In the more recent past trendy Thais and their parents adopted foreign words and brand names for nicknames. These days one doesn’t bat an eyelid when one hears a person referred to as Ice, Bank, Beer, Cartoon, Pepsi, Benz, or Audi. Even ‘God’ has been used as a nickname! Perhaps this is a case of globalisation at its corniest or imitation gone awry.
Recently, however, there has been a backlash to these foreign words. Parents with flair for the Thai language have started to give their offspring longer Thai nicknames based on simple yet meaningful words. Nicknames such as Bai Dtong (banana leaf), Thongdaeng (copper), Fahsai (clear sky), Sainahm (stream), Ghati (coconut milk) and Kwankhao (rice spirit) are coming to the fore. Even first names are based on these attractive yet unpretentious words, like Sairung (rainbow) or Saifon (raindrop). In fact they often relate to nature or a natural phenomenon that occurred when the child was born, a tradition that is also common to Native American cultures. Whatever the nickname though, be it cute, whimsical or prosaic, you can be sure it has an interesting story behind it.