It is quite possible to know someone very well for several years, maybe their entire life, and never know their real first name. People are formally addressed by their personal name but very rarely by their family name. Thai telephone directories list personal names not family names.
In fact, it was only since 1913 that Thais had family names and the families chose whatever name they wanted. Many chose some local landmark on or close to their home – “tamarind tree” might be adopted by one set of relatives and maybe other cousins would choose “tamarind branch”, “tamarind leaf”, “tamarind fruit” “tamarind seed” or “tamarind root”. Sometimes it would be “canal bank” or “swamp edge”. Of course, many chose more auspicious and grandiloquent names – “golden future” or “golden and precious as life itself”.
Only the parents and the individual child often know the meaning of a personal name as they are derived from Pali or Sanskrit and have been constructed with the help of a monk or person who knows Pali. However, most personal names have clear meanings to anyone. We in the West seem to have lost most of the manifest meaning of names.
Usually, a Thai person receives a nickname as an infant and that is the name they are known by everyone. Elephant, bird, apple, pearl, red, little, tiny, small, big, egg, crab, cat, pig, shrimp, little finger, cockerel, flower, chicken and baby chick are all common nicknames used in Thailand.
When I start teaching a new class I receive a register with each student’s personal name on it. I find it confusing enough to remember each person’s name without getting confused by trying to remember their nicknames, too. So, I use the nickname and write into the register alongside the proper name.
I am fascinated by the meanings of the personal names. Battle; garland; increased status; second thoughts; wisdom; lucky fulfilment; the glory of the full moon; fertile; politeness; dawn; unexpected; progress; good blessings; peace; helpful; victory; good family; good thoughts; good deeds; good words; magic blessings; heart’s desire; angel; inventing; day of victory; sharp as a dagger; pure heart; dragon and sunshine are all translations of Thai personal names. You will see that some are expressions of parental reactions to the birth but most are hopes that carrying such a name will bring good fortune or honourable behaviour.
You may see that names have a magical quality for Thais. The same is true for western mysticism and magic. To know the true name of a spirit is to have power or control over it. Simply think of the story of Rumplestiltskin! Or think of cats – they have the name that everyone can use and also their real name that no one else ever gets to know.