Nicknames in America last pretty much through 8th grade, and they aren’t pretty. I had one, and you probably had one, and we would just as soon forget about them entirely.
Every Thai has a nickname (chuu len which translates to “’playname”) that they usually carry with them all their lives. It is given to them when they are an infant, and they are often just one syllable. Sometimes these names are a bit silly, but the Thai is still known by this name all through adulthood, regardless of how prestigious a level they have reached. For instance, one long term Prime Minister of Thailand, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, was nicknamed “Strange” because as a baby he looked somewhat odd. So while the PM met with world leaders on the most important issues of the world, his staff always referred to him by his odd nickname. The current Prime Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, is known by friends and associates by her nickname “Crab” (Pu).
When a Thai person is introduced, in both a social and business setting, they are introduced by their nickname, and people may never know the real name for the person. Employers would have to look up in their records to find the “real” name for their employees they talk with every day.
Rumor has it that the reason for the nickname is based in the superstition that using the true 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’).
I think Thai nicknames are fun, and sometimes it seems like a person grows into their nickname and it is part of who they are. Here is a little encyclopedia of some of my favorite Thai nicknames:
Names about Food
Sometimes, a nickname for a Thai is about food. One of the most popular nicknames for a boy is Wun Sen, or vermicelli. Maybe this is for an extra skinny kid. Khanom Jee, or Chinese Noodles, is another popular name. Pancake, or in English, pancake, is popular for girls, and perhaps not always appreciated later in life when they try to emphasize their figure. However, one of Thailand’s most popular and beautiful screen actresses in known as Pancake, so that gives this name a bit of credibility.
Names about Branded Products
Other brands used in Thai nicknames include the popular Benz (as in Mercedes Benz) for a girl, Fiat (the little Italian car), or Cola (as in Coca Cola) for a boy, Pepsi (Cola’s rival), Beam (as in the American whiskey) and Seven (as in 7-11) a common girl’s nickname.
Names about Animals and Plants
Palm (the sturdy tropical plant) and Mint (with the fragrant leaves) are pretty common, but the girl’s name Bird (Nok) must be the most popular Thai nickname of all. Many Thai girls are named after cute or cuddly little animals or the sweetest fruits; names like Cat (Maew), Mouse (Noo), Deer (Kwang), Rabbit (Taay), Frog (Kop), Orange (Som), Pomelo (Som-O), Rose Apple (Chompoo), Marian Plum (Ma-prang), Watermelon (Taeng-mo), Grape (A-ngun). Or since seafood is so well regarded in Thailand, many girls are known by the name Fish (Pla) or Crab (Poo). (What my 8th grade classmates would have done to a girl — especially if she was a bit chubby — named Watermelon).
Sometimes the sound of animals goes into a nickname, like Jip (tweet like bird’s sound).
In some cultures in the world, being called a Pig is certainly not complimentary, or perhaps it is used as a job description for some professions. But in Thailand, pigs are really cool, and many boys carry the name Pig (Moo).
OK – Here are the Outrageous Ones (to a Western Ear)
We like to have fun sometimes slipping in our English translation into Thai words. For instance, every Expat in Thailand knows a few girls with the popular name of Porn, which in English means Blessings. Another name, Siriporn (pronounced “Silly Porn) translates into English as Many Blessings.
Then there are those Thai boys that go through their whole life with the nickname of the Thai green pumpkin, Fuk. Or, pity the Thai lad that has a lifelong common Thai nickname of Prik (chili, pepper). Well if they don’t set foot in America or run into the guys that chastised me in the 8th grade, they will probably be just fine.
There is a famous Thai football player (or as Americans would say “soccer player”) by the name of Terdsak.
What is Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander
So we can have a chuckle or even a roll on the floor hysteria over how some Thai nicknames translate into English, but it also works the other way around. Take the common American name Jim. English teachers in Thailand by that name will introduce themselves to their class as Mr. Jim, and the whole class will break out in snickers, because Jim (or Gym) translates to a slang word for Vagina.
Then there was the teacher by the name of Mr. Hamilton that cut his name down to simply “Ham”, which in Thai is slang for male penis. Another English teacher I heard about who wanted to speak very slowly to be understood shouted out “Quiet” whenever the noise level got too much. But in his slow speaking way, he would shout Q U A I- Y E T. Well quai translates to buffalo and yet translates to fuck, so his proclamations would almost bring the house down with laughter by the students.
Well obviously I am getting way off topic here as my mind wanders about funny translations, so I will end this discussion that originally started out as funny Thai nicknames. If you have some fun nicknames in Thailand you can share, please share them in the comments. For sure, Thai nicknames can be fun.