Thai nicknames

By : KhunSanuk
Views : 12979

Most Thai people have a nickname, chuu len in Thai (which translates to 'playname'). But the nickname does not necessarily have a correlation with the formal name. The widespread practice of using nicknames is a reflection of the Thai sabai-sabai culture. Thais have a formal name that usually has a positive and traditional meaning. This name must also conform to proper standards when registered. But at home or with those with whom they have a close relationship, the formal name is not usually used. So, a nickname is created by parents or other family members based on look or actions (hence so many daengs because of a baby's reddish tint right after birth). The nickname is also extended to the workplace. Usually, they use the nickname without the formal preceding title Khun, which is analogous to Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. in English. It demonstrates an informal and close relationship.

Rumor has it that the reason for the nickname is based in the superstition that using the name of a baby will draw the attention of evil spirits, especially when it is said that the baby is cute or beautiful (which is why Thais tend to say that babies are 'ugly').

Nicknames can be grouped into the following categories, with a few examples of each:

KLUAY - Banana
PEN or PUN - Short form of Apple
SOM - Orange

CHANG - Elephant
GOP - Frog
KAI - Chicken
KUNG - Shrimp
JEAB - Baby chicken
MEE+ - Bear
MEOW - Cat
MOO - Pork
NOK - Bird
NOO - Mouse
PED - Duck
PLAA - Fish
POO - Crab
TAI' (kratai) - rabbit

AEK - First
SONG - 2

Gem-based (usually girlnames):
KAEW - Crystal
PHET - Diamond
PLOY - Jewel

LEK - Small
NOI - Little
NIT - A little
TO - Big
YAI - Big

DUM - Black
FAA - Blue
KEOW - Green
LEUNG - Yellow

Sky-based (usually girlnames):
JAN (Chan) - Moon
DOW - Star
FON - Rain
MAKE - Cloud
RUNG - Rainbow

AOOD - Pig's voice
EAD - No meaning
MAM is popular for kids that look farang
MUAY is popular for Chinese girls
NENG - No meaning
OUN - Fat
TEE is popular for Chinese boys

Lots of nicknames have a history. For instance, TEE and MUAY can tell us that the person is of Chinese blood. OUN can tell us that during childhood the person was a fat kid. NUENG can tell us that the person is the eldest kid in the family. MOO can tell us that the person was a fat kid, like a pig!

The nickname is also a good starting point to establish small talk. By simply asking the person of their nickname, the following question can probe for the meaning. You will learn lots of personal history. It works very well, particularly with women.



Usually, the native Thai folks have quite a short surname. For example - BOONMEE, SRISAI, etc. However, most of the people who have a long last name are the subsequent generation of a Chinese immigrant. In order to have better understanding, let's look back to the society's history.

Many years ago, when the China mainland transformed the countries political system from a Monarchy to Communist, lots of Chinese left the country seeking a new life opportunity. Many of them selected Thailand as their destination. They started a new life in the Kingdom with prosperity. They still kept their identity by using their Chinese name. Thereafter, their kids, the following generation, were born with a Thai name. However, they still used a Chinese last name like Tang, Lim, Ng, etc. They then came to realize that it was not localized enough to have a Thai name with a Chinese last name. They began to apply for a Thai last name. That is the starting point of this story. When you go to apply for Thai last name, the regulation for registration of the new last name is as follows:

The applicant submits five alternatives to the government officer. Each one has a maximum of 10 Thai characters. The officer will search in the data base for identical last names. The law doesn't allow identical last names to those existing already so hopefully, one of the five alternatives will be unique and can be used. About one month later, the applicant will check with the officer. If there is any duplication, they will need to create a new one and resubmit it again. If there isn't a duplication, then they can use the real NEW last name.

Since Thailand has a lot of immigrant Chinese, subsequent applicants have to create a new name that has a low probability of duplication. Thus, the new surnames just get longer and longer. So next time, if you see Thais who have a long surname, you may want to ask them whether they are really Chinese, or of Chinese descent.

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Comments / Feedback

August 9, 2011, 14:11

Thanks for the good background of Thai nicknames and last names.

I have one thing to add to a nickname "Neng". It means shiny. Kids like to tease any friend who shaved the head as "Hua Neng" meaning shiny head!
steve rosse
August 10, 2011, 01:51

Nice article by a non-native English speaker, perhaps a Thai? One comment, though: Neung does not necessarily mean "first born." The Neung who broke my heart was the first born girl in the family, but not the first born child.

My ex-brother-in-law was "Khiaw," which means "green." This was because he was so dark-skinned that when he was an infant his scrotal skin looked green. So they called him "Khai Khiaw," or "Green Eggs."
mark Twain
August 10, 2011, 15:09

From World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Thailand : Chinese.

Anti-Chinese sentiments appeared in government policies, including statements made by King Rama VI asserting that the Chinese were not loyal Thai subjects. These were followed by laws such as a 1910 poll tax which had a considerable impact on the Chinese and led to a general strike by Chinese workers.

While a 1913 Nationality Law gave citizenship to the Chinese, Thai authorities started to enforce laws that also mandated the assimilation of citizens. This became particularly obvious after the overthrow of Thailand's absolute monarchy in 1932 brought in military leaders who adopted much more blatantly Thai nationalist policies. In the 1930s and 1940s, various laws and other measures excluded members of the Chinese minority from about 27 different professions, nationalized some areas of the economy or brought it under strict government control – and outside of Chinese hands. Teaching in Chinese was either prohibited or only allowed in private schools for a limited number of hours. Many Chinese either chose to leave the country, migrating to other parts of Asia, or tried to 'disappear' by adopting Thai names so as to be less conspicuous.
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