The modern Thai name is a 20th century innovation. For centuries, inhabitants of Siam, now Thailand, did not have surnames (family names; last names). Thais identified themselves by referring to their parents given names or the place they resided. The Siamese government started recording data on Siamese citizens during the reign of King Rama V (1868–1910). The data recorded was minimal: birth date, date of death, household members. It was difficult to distinguish between the king's subjects as many shared the same name. In 1912, two years after the Western-educated Rama VI ascended to the throne, he declared that a birth, death, and marriage registration system would be instituted in Siam. Everyone had to bear a surname to identify themselves properly. In 1913, the first Surname Act was promulgated.
Thai names follow the Western European pattern of given name family name. This differs from the family-name-first patterns of Cambodia, Vietnam, and East Asia. Thai names (given and family) are often long, and there are a great many of them. The diversity of family names is due to the fact that Thai surnames are a recent introduction, and are required to be unique to a family.
Thai given names generally convey positive attributes, and a number of Thai people change their given names relatively frequently (and their family names less frequently, as it requires permission from the head of a family or, in the case of children, father and mother). This practice is virtually unknown in most countries outside of marriage and fortune-telling traditions. Besides standard reasons of separation and divorce, many name changes are done to get rid of bad luck (which, if caused by a ghost or spirit, would confuse the malignant entity, allowing the victim to get free from them). Additionally, while given names are used for official purposes and record-keeping, most Thais are also given nickname at birth which they use in their daily life, including at school and in the workplace. Oftentimes, the nickname takes precedence over the real name and very few people besides close friends, family, and employers will know the real name.
Last names became legally required of Thai citizens in 1913 with the passing of the Surname Act 1913. Until then, most Thais used only a first or given name. Thai surnames are often long, particularly among Thais of Chinese descent. For example, the family of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is of Chinese descent, adopted the name Shinawatra ('does good routinely') in 1938. According to the current law, Person Name Act, BE 2505 (1962), to create a new Thai surname, it must be no longer than ten Thai letters, excluding vowel symbols and diacritics. The same law also forbids the creation of a surname which is a duplicate of any existing surnames, however there are some duplicates dating to the time before computer databases were available to prevent this. Some creations incorporated the name of their location (muban, tambon, or amphoe) into their surnames, similar to family name suffixes.
As a measure of the diversity of Thai names, in a sample of 45,665 names, 81% of family names were unique and 35% of given names were unique. The people with shared family names are related, and the diversity of given names is conventional.
The "Surname Act of 2013" decreed that "married woman can bear her husband's surname or keep her maiden name" (Clause 6 of the act). A woman's right to choose her surname ended in 1941 with the passage of the "Personal Name Act 1941". The law forced women to use their husband's surname after marriage (Clause 13). The Personal Name Act of 1941 was revised in 1962. The 1962 law allowed a divorced woman to resume her maiden surname (Clause 13 of the "Personal Name Act 1962"). A widow could keep her husband's surname or could revert to her maiden surname (Clause 14). The Personal Name Act 2002 gave a married woman the right to use her maiden name or assume her spouse's surname. She has to choose one or the other when the marriage is registered. A couple also has the right to use a different surname.
Informal names are awarded at birth and may continue in use to the extent one may have to check the formal registration to find a person's given formal name. Thais typically address one other by nicknames (Thai: ชื่อเล่น; RTGS: chue len). Bestowed by relatives or playmates in early childhood, these are commonly one syllable (or worn down from two to one). These may often be nonsense words or humorous and seldom relate to the registered name except in cases where it is a diminutive, such as Nok for Noknoi, or 'bird' from 'little bird'. All Thais have such names; they are freely used in everyday life. Some may have additional nicknames bestowed by friends or colleagues, especially during school or adolescence. Nicknames may link with a notable physical feature or behavior. In everyday life, a Thai is introduced by nickname and others may not know the person's formal name. When so introduced, one usually continues to use the nickname.
The evolution of Thai nicknames dates back to the Sukhothai era, when names were used to mark the order of children. Nicknames such as Ai, Yee, and Sam designated children as 'one', 'two', and 'three'. Later, in the Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods, children began to be named for physical attributes, such as Daeng ('red') or Uan ('fat') or for desirable items such as Thong ('gold'). Conversely, unflattering nicknames such as Mah ('dog'), Moo ('pig'), or Gop ('frog') were employed to keep malign spirits from coveting the child. King Mongkut (Rama IV) (1804-1868) stimulated interest in naming babies in accordance with astrological principles as outlined in the ancient scripture, Namtaksapakorn.
During the time of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (1897-1964), gender-based naming was introduced. Names ending in "-sak", "-chai", and "-yot" were for male babies, "-porn" or "-sri" for females. In the 21st century, assigning nicknames still relies heavily on astrological beliefs, but also in keeping up with current naming fashions. Observers have noted such modern nicknames as "Porsche", "Mercedes", "Benz", "Man U", "Big Mac", "Internet", and "Google", among others.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej's nickname, for example, was Ong Lek (Thai: องค์เล็ก; Ong is a numerative noun for kings, princes, princesses, priests, images of Buddha, gods, angels, palaces, pagodas; lek means 'little (one)', a common name for younger siblings). Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's nickname is (Thai: แม้ว; RTGS: maeo), Thai for the Miao people. By way of example preceding formal naming, Plaek Pibulsongkram's childhood name meant 'strange'. He later adopted as a surname what was originally an award for academic excellence and generally known in public life by the shortened form Pibun. Thailand's first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is nicknamed Pu 'crab' (ปู; Thai pronunciation: [pūː ]).
Forms of address
In the past, different words were used to address men and women. Nai (นาย) or Ay (อ้าย) were used before a man's given name. Am daeng (อําแดง) or Ii (อี) were used before a woman's given name. A man named Somchai was addressed as Nai Somchai or Ay Somchai. A woman whose name was Somsri was addressed as Am daeng Somsri or Ii Somsri. There was no law concerning this matter, it was purely a matter of custom.
In 1917, Rama VI declared a new law, the "Form of Address for Woman Act, 1917". The act mandated a new form of address, Nangsao (นางสาว) ('Miss') for women who were unmarried (the wording used in the act was "woman who has no husband") and Nang (นาง) ('Missus' [Mrs.]) for women who were married ('married woman or woman who has husband'). Once a woman married, she had to use the address Nang before her given name for the rest of her life even if she divorced or widowed. This form of address applied to commoners, not to women in royal or noble families.
In 1921, the king proclaimed the form of address for girls. He specified that that "girl" meant a female under 15 years old; they were addressed as nangsao, as were females older than 15 years of age and unmarried (meaning 'married to a man').
The Form of Address for Women Act 2008 mandates that married or divorced women can choose to use either Nang or Nangsao before their given names. It gives a married woman the right to change all her documents (ID card, driver's license, bank account) to include the title Nangsao before her given name.
Royal and feudal names
East Asian monarchs often adopted regnal names upon ascending the throne, as was done in Thailand until the present day. In addition, subjects of a monarch may be awarded both a title and a name, such as in the case of Sing (or Singh) Sinhaseni (สิงห์ สิงหเสนี) who was awarded the title of Chao Phraya and the name of Bodindecha (Thai: เจ้าพระยาบดินทรเดชา.)
Kings Rama I and Rama II were awarded noble titles and names before they assumed regnal names, which were then changed by subsequent kings. As neither noble titles nor names are necessarily unique, it is customary to list the highest title and awarded named first, followed by former names and titles (and personal and family names in parentheses) as needed.
Descendants of the nobility, both hereditary and non-hereditary positions, generally take the noble name of their ancestor for a surname. For instance, Hugo Chakrabongse is a descendant of Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath. Some (far removed) descendants of royalty add the preposition and nobility particle "na" (ณ) to geographical names to create surnames, in the same way that members of German noble families use von.
Thus Mongkol Na Songkhla, a minister in the Surayud government, has a name indicating that he is a distant descendant of royalty or nobility in that geographical region (for instance, the surname "Na Chiangmai", belonging to descendants of the rulers of Chiang Mai, which was a vassal state of Siam). The name of Kasem Sanidvongs na Ayudhya, another minister, indicates that he is related to the royal family, as it is also tradition for far-removed descendants to add "Na Ayudhya" after their surnames. In this case, Sanitwong is the family name of Kasem. Sanitwong itself being the name of Prince Wongsa Dhiraj Snid, a son of King Buddha Loetla Nabhalai, and the subsequent family name for his descendants.
According to the Chicago Manual of Style, Thai names may be indexed depending upon the individual practice. Often they may be alphabetized under the given name with no comma or inversion, but they may also be alphabetized under the surname with a comma and with an inversion.
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