My friends call me Google

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.”

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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6 Responses to My friends call me Google

  1. Andrew Nette says:

    Great post, but don’t even think of giving our daughter google for a nickname.


  2. Hi Angela

    That’s funny….I would say bizarre, but up here in the hills it’s impossible to look up anyone’s phone number because nobody is known by their real name. Obituary notices are a real problem because they are published with legal names and it’s hard to know who’s actually died… My own boys have long answered to “Monster” and “Rat” 🙂


  3. Sooz says:

    We have a friend called Golf, and she certainly predates the shift to English names, as do out friends Art and Oar (although she spells it Aor). I suspect the use of English may have been adopted unevenly and related to exposure or uptake of other Western cultural stuff. Golf finds nothing at all unusual about her name, she says her mother played a lot of golf while pregnant, so it was kind of obvious!


  4. angelasavage says:

    @ Sulari, Tash answers to Monkey and Pumpkin. She believes everyone should have an animal nickname and a food nickname. Her best friend’s nickname is Chicken. ‘That’s cute,’ I said to the girl, ‘and what’s your food name?’ ‘Chicken,’ she said as if stating the bleeding obvious.

    @ Sooz, Golf has become a popular nickname in Thailand. On the sporting theme, those blogs I cite note Ball, ManU (for Manchester United) and Ping Pong. In my new novel, I have a character called Pla (Fish) so named because her mother felt she had a little fish inside her when she was pregnant.


  5. khim says:


    I’ve just been called Posh and learnt later that P.O.S.H stands for “Port Out, Starboard Home” – travellers by sea from UK booked cabins on the left (port) side of the ship on their journey out to the east (India, Malaya etc), away from the hot sun, the same on their way home (starboard). Obviously these cabins were more expensive, so only the well-off could afford them.


  6. Pingback: Körpersprache bei Frauen » Blog Archive » Fundamentals of Thai Grammar

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