Let me explain.
Most everyone who has ever known me calls me Penny. It’s how I introduce myself to the world and I’ve embodied and embraced not just this name but all of the cute, and at times funny, additional nicknames it’s created – Money Penny, Penny Proud, Penny pimpin’, Penny pasta, the cent.
But hardly anyone knows me by my “formal” or “legal” first name. I won’t spoil the surprise quite yet, because I’m still in the “explaining Thai names” part of this story.
In Thai culture, many people have three names, but it’s not in the sense of having a first, middle, and last name. In Thai families, like in many cultures, the last name is the family name. Everyone you are connected to by blood has the same last name. Importantly, though, if you’re not related you shouldn’t have the same last name. In Thailand, you won’t find too many examples of Smith and Smith or Jones and Jones.
So, to create a unique name unlike another family, names can be parsed out, spliced together, and combined to create polysyllabic masterpieces. Think the name of the Bangkok airport, Suvarnabhumi.
Also, if a family has run into familial bad luck, changing the family name is a really good opportunity to bury that sour note and begin anew.
The family name is an important connection and is often talked about and known throughout tight-knit communities. The uniqueness of Thai last names really makes that connection an emphasis point. Legacies are rooted in last names. Connections between strangers can be made by knowing last names. In many cases, generational Thai family names are sewn into the land and fabric of communities themselves – waypoints when telling directions can be last names of a family in the area – with or without the actual formality of the family name being memorialized as a road name or building name.
For Thai first names, parents will oftentimes visit a Buddhist monk for suggestions on names based on the child’s date of birth and time. My parents had four to choose from, and decided upon mine as it means bravery.
In addition to the family name, the other part of a Thai name that is widely known by others is the nickname. For Thai nicknames, they are often cute, rhythmic, endearing, or easy to relate to because they draw from a person’s attributes or behaviors. Some draw from the Thai language, such as the popular nickname Som, meaning orange, while others draw from other languages – most commonly English, such as Bee.
For me, that Thai nickname is Penny, like the coin. But here’s where the trouble can start. Some people love to go into detective mode, deciphering inner meanings to names and nicknames and ascribing meanings that really aren’t there. In the most difficult times, it’s rooted in assimilation. And as beautiful as it is, I have no connection, or really feel anything in my heart, for the name Penelope, which is often where the nickname Penny comes from in English.
Similar to the difficulties around Thai nicknames, but for altogether different reasons. Mispronunciations and mischaracterizations happen often with legal Thai first names. Through communication channels where people have not met me or heard my voice or know nothing about me, my name often will get “corrected” to something like Nathanial or Nathan.
One time, while visiting a dental office to get my teeth cleaned, on the intake form there was no line for a preferred name. Since it was for a health record I went with my legal name on the form. And despite feeble attempts at pronouncing the name, the receptionist offered this remarkably emboldened take on my name, family, history, and culture, all wrapped up with a nice bow:
Why didn’t your parents just name you Natalie?
In my state of shock and bewilderment, at the time I did not have the wherewithal to correct or explain, but in hindsight, I’d reply:
Don’t nickel and dime me, I’m Penny…I’m NATTHINEE!
Outro: I do want to leave you all with hints and tips of how to respectfully learn someone’s preferred name, especially if it’s an unfamiliar name or a new-to-you name. Don’t be afraid to ask for them to repeat the name a few times. Then try it yourself out loud – quietly if that is a help. Ask them if you are close, or if they have any suggestions on how to improve the pronunciation. It’s a joy to me when hearing someone practice my name and then successfully pronounce it.
There are also a growing number of websites designed to ease the stress of pronouncing an unfamiliar name. A quick search online provides multiple sites with pronunciation guides, just be aware the website may go with the most common pronunciation at the risk of leaving out some less common variations. For those with potentially unfamiliar names who would like to get in front of mispronunciations, websites like namedrop.io allow you to upload your name along with your voice pronouncing it just the way you like it. Link your personal pronunciation to your email signature or add a quick QR code to a business card or resume, to allow people to hear your voice saying your name so they can practice it ahead of time.
Lastly, be kind. No one likes having their name be butchered, or like my example, completely overtaken by assimilation.
Thank you for listening, be well.
– Penny Natthinee Friedrichsen