Typically a Thai person only uses his or her official name in formal situations. Even in work, most people use their nicknames. It is quite common for acquaintances to never actually know a person’s full name, only their nickname.
Thais historically only used short names, the names that today would be considered nicknames. There were no clans in the Thailand of old, and so no identifying naming conventions were needed. Only the Royal Family had official names, taken from the ancient language of Sanskrit.
Nicknames are cultural traditions in Thailand. The practice goes back to the Sukhothai era, when babies were commonly named according to their birth order. Names that translated as numbers or words like old and young were the norm. Nicknames evolved to describe a baby’s appearance, leading to colours and adjectives like fat, thin, big, small, long, and short being used. During the Ayutthaya era it was also common for babies to be given names of desirable characteristics or items, like strong, gold, brave, and similar.
In later times, babies were given two names to confuse malevolent spirits who may want to steal the baby away or interfere with the person’s life. It was felt that by having two names the spirits would be less likely to meddle in people’s affairs. Additionally, calling a child by an undesirable name, like pig, dog, or fat, was said to deter bad spirits from wanting to take the baby. It is still customary today for people to refrain from commenting on, for example, how beautiful or cute a baby is for the same reasons.
Interest in naming children according to astrological data also became popular, hence the growing number of people who started to consult monks and sages when choosing names. King Rama VI started to give family names to royal servants, with names being a part of status in Thailand.
By 1913, Thai law required the use of family names, mainly for practical reasons of identification. Interestingly, no two families can have the same name; anybody with the same last name is, therefore, related in some way. To enhance their own status, regular people later began to adopt longer and more official sounding first names. This was a fairly recent change, occurring after the revolution of 1931. For ease, people also retained nicknames, given at birth, with the convention continuing to the present day.
Practically today, many babies aren’t given their official name until the parents have consulted with a monk, fortune teller, or other respected person in society. Names have great significance in Thailand, and are said to have an impact on a person’s whole future. Until the official name is decided, parents need a nickname for their baby. Unless, of course, they want to call him or her “baby” for several weeks!
The choice of nicknames today is largely down to the personal preference of the parents. Some still use traditional naming conventions, while others choose nicknames based on what sounds pleasing to them. There are, as in many cultures, trends that some people follow, such as the use of foreign words for nicknames. Sometimes, families are unaware of the meanings of such words, simply choosing them because they sound interesting. On occasion, the nickname may actually be a short form of the official name.
Thai nicknames are more than just a convenience or terms of endearment between family members and close friends; they are bound up in the very nature of Thai-ness and an important part of Thai culture.