Thainess Part 6: Family & Nicknames

Family Matters

A Thai family eating in one of the many houses built on stilts on the banks of the Menam Chao Phya River in Bangkok, circa 1955. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Family almost always comes first in Thailand, with a much greater emphasis placed on the extended family than it typically is in western countries. If you’re shocked by the number of siblings a Thai person has, it’s highly likely many of those are cousins — there’s no word in Thai for cousin and people refer to cousins as their brothers and sisters.

The ideal is for a married couple to establish its own household as soon as possible. However, especially among poorer couples, residence with the parents of the husband or wife is common. The nuclear family is the core of the domestic unit, but it often includes members of the extended family. Unmarried siblings, widowed parents and more distant unmarried or widowed male and female relatives are often included. The husband is nominally the head of the household, but the wife has considerable authority. Female members of the household are responsible for most domestic chores.

The Thai Royal Family, 1962

Polygyny was common among the elite in the past but is now rare, although wealthy and powerful men often have a de facto second wife known as a minor wife (mia noi).

It’s normal for extended families to live close to each other, with many Thais maintaining strong links with their home villages even if they move away for work. It’s fairly common for children to be raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles if their parents need to work elsewhere, such is the role of extended family in everyday life.

Property generally is divided equally among the children after the parents die. It is common practice for one child, usually the youngest daughter, to assume primary responsibility for looking after the parents in their old age, and this person inherits the family home.


Thais are generally addressed by their first names, preceded by the honorific title Khun, appropriate for both men and women. People of importance, such as teachers, professors or monks, are referred to as Ajarn. In more casual settings, mono-syllabic nicknames (chuu len’ ชื่อเล่น) are used.

The nicknames are often used more frequently than their real names. Parents, teachers, friends, and more will refer to them by this name. Nicknames are often one or two syllables long, making them much easier to say or write. In fact, some people may not even know their close friends’ “real” names. I have found that many of my students cannot even spell their long names in English; luckily, they are embroidered onto their school uniform shirts so they can refer to that when needed!

Whether the nicknames relate to the personality or something desirable, they are chosen specifically for each person. Even as they grow and change, the nickname will usually stick with them for life. Some are better than others, I suppose. Over the years, I have had many boys with the nickname of Beer and several girls nicknamed Bonus. This term, one boy is called Jackpot.

The tradition of giving newborn babies a nickname originated from a desire to trick malevolent spirits who may want to steal the baby away. Evil spirits (bpee-sàat, ปีศาจ) were believed to be constantly on the lookout for newborn children to snatch away and control. The spirits are apparently easily fooled though, as just the use of a nickname instead of a normal Thai name confuses them and helps to keep the child safe. Traditionally, people avoided complimenting parents on their new baby too, fearing making the child seem too desirable to the spirits.

More traditional monikers cover categories such as colors, animals, and fruit, including Daeng (red), Lek (small), and Moo (pig); these days, you will encounter nicknames such as Good, Money, and Benz (as in the luxury auto). has a nice list of common Thai nicknames.

One thought on “Thainess Part 6: Family & Nicknames

  1. Pingback: Sunday Summary #5 | Mark Joseph Jochim

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