Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 9 News List

What's in a name? The fate of Thai culture, according to Bangkok

Alarmed by the proliferation of English nicknames like Bank and Mafia, the culture ministry has laubched a campaign to revive traditional Thai names

By Thomas Fuller   /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BANGKOK

The US has Tom, Dick and Harry. Thailand has Pig, Money and Fat.

For as long as people here can remember, children have been given playful nicknames -- classics include Shrimp, Chubby and Crab -- that are carried into adulthood.

But now, to the consternation of some nickname purists, children are being given such offbeat English-language nicknames as Mafia or Seven -- as in 7-Eleven, the convenience store.

The spread of foreign names mirrors a rapidly urbanizing society that has absorbed any number of influences, including Hollywood, fast-food chains and English Premier League soccer.

The trend worries Vira Rojpojchanarat, the permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Culture. Vira, whose nickname is the relatively unimaginative Ra, is embarking on a campaign to revive the simple and often more pastoral nicknames of yore.

"It's important because it's about the usage of the Thai language," Vira, an architect by training, said in his office decorated with Thai theatrical masks and a small Buddhist altar. "We worry that Thai culture will vanish."

HANDBOOK

With help from language experts at the Royal Institute, the official arbiter of the Thai language, Vira plans to produce by the end of the year a collection of thousands of old-fashioned nicknames, listed by such wholesome categories as colors, animals and fruit and including simple favorites like Yaay (big), Ouan (fat) and Dam (black).

Published in a small booklet, the names will be distributed to the news media and libraries and posted on the Internet.

"We can't force people," Vira said. "It's their right to have their own ideas. But what we can do is give them options by producing this handbook."

The culture ministry's plans have not yet been made public, but some Thais, when told about the nickname campaign, were skeptical.

"I don't agree with this; it's unnecessary," said Manthanee Akaracharanrya, a 29-year-old real estate contractor.

Manthanee, whose nickname is Money, says having an English name is practical because it is easier for foreigners to pronounce, unlike Thai names, which are tonal and can include sounds alien to non-Thai speakers.

THEME

Her name has meaning, Manthanee said. Her father chose Money because she was born on Nov. 29, around the time his paycheck landed. Her elder brother is named Bonus because he was born on Chinese New Year, when some companies hand out extra cash. And her younger brother is called Bank, because it fitted the theme.

Korakoad Wongsinchai, an English teacher at a private primary school in Bangkok, is also not sure whether the ministry's campaign will stem the tide of English names.

"Parents think they are modern names," Korakoad said of the foreign nicknames. "Thai names are from 20 years ago."

More than half of her students have English names, she said, offering this sampling: Tomcruise, Elizabeth, Army, Kiwi, Charlie and God. One apparently gourmand family named their child Gateaux, the French word for cakes.

"I think a lot of parents get the names from television or magazines," she said.

Korakoad, 30, carries the nickname Moo (pig), a traditional name that Vira approves of and says will be in the booklet.

After years of hearing about the spread of foreign nicknames, Vira says he was spurred into action in July when he saw the results of a survey of almost 3,000 students in and around the city of Khon Khaen, in northeastern Thailand.

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