My crime novels are set in Thailand, so I’m always in the market for Thai names. But as Thai names can be alienating for readers unfamiliar with Thai language, they need to easy to recognise and different enough for a non-Thai speaker to distinguish one character from the next.
In my first novel Behind the Night Bazaar, my editor recommended a name change in the penultimate draft on the grounds that having two Thai cops whose names started with P might confuse readers. The corrupt Police Lieutenant Colonel was re-named Ratratarn, a name which worked well in English since it contains the word ‘rat’ (รัตน์) — though this actually means ‘precious stone’ in Thai, and in retrospect, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ratratarn turned out to be a girl’s name.
I have blogged elsewhere about an almost mystical thing that happened when I changed a Thai character’s name at the eleventh hour in my second book The Half-Child. Again, the issue was not having Thai names that looked too similar in English.
I’m nearing the half-way mark of the first draft of my third book and already I know I’ll have to do some name changing down the track. But my more immediate problem is finding enough Thai names that translate for English readers amongst a cast that numbers some twenty Thai characters so far, and counting.
My task is made a little easier by the fact Thai people use mostly nicknames to refer to themselves and each other. Traditionally, nicknames were given to babies, often to confuse the spirits who might otherwise snatch the baby away. Hence the popularity of animal nicknames like Moo (Pig), Kob (Frog), Gai (Chicken), Goong (Shrimp) — many of which made it into The Half-Child as the nicknames of babies in the orphanage.
My novels are set in the late-1990s when it was still common for people to be nicknamed for fruits, such as Som (Orange) or Chompoo (Rose Apple), or called after animals like Maew (Cat) or Nok (Bird). Back then you couldn’t hang out in a bar in Bangkok without meeting at least one Lek and one Noy — both meaning ‘Small’ or ‘Little’. As my new book is set on the Andaman Coast, a number of characters have nicknames that reflect their proximity to the sea like Pu (Crab), Pla (Fish) and Tao (Turtle).
By 1997-98 when I was living in Bangkok, a new trend in Thai nicknames was becoming apparent: the use of English words as names. I refer to this in The Half-Child, when PI Jayne Keeney, working undercover in the orphanage, meets a child called ‘Dollar’. In fact, I did meet a girl called Dollar in 2002 in rural Laos of all places, together with her brother Fanta (I kid you not) and sisters Cuba (pronounced Quee-bah in Lao) and La Rue (La-louee).
I also met people in Thailand whose nicknames were letters of the Roman alphabet, like A (Eh), O (Oh) and the popular X (Eks, written as เอ็กซ์ in Thai).
But these seem ordinary compared to what I’ve read recently about contemporary Thai nicknames. Thai blogger Kaemala recently blogged a list of weird Thai nicknames, while Thai 101 plans to compile a comprehensive list of Thai nicknames derived from English words. These include such gems as Benz (for a girl), Beer (for a boy), Bank, Boat, Golf, Mint and — among celebrities at least — Pancake and Airbus.
Speaking of celebrities, whether or not it is the fault of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, Apple (in English) has become a hugely popular nickname in Thailand, often shortened to ‘Pern’ (from Ep-pern, the Thai pronunciation).
Other hot nicknames — if I’ve read the Thai language website correctly — include Mild for a girl and Mickey for a boy. And rumour has it there are Thai children out there called Google, Linux and Facebook.
Fortunately, my novels pre-date the more whacky borrowing from English for Thai nicknames. Were I writing a crime novel set in contemporary Thailand, it might read something like this:
Bomb said he’d meet Bank but only if Beer agreed to be there.
“What about Benz?” asked Beer.
“Benz and Boat are long gone. But I can always rely on Google.”