Thais use first names to address people even in formal situations. The polite form of address is the gender-neutral ‘khun’, followed by the first name or nickname, more often than not the nickname — Khun Jon [John], khun Kop [frog]. Everyone has a nickname, often of only one syllable, Nung, Kop, Moo, Nui, Kung, Tong, Lek [One, Frog, Pig, Mouse, Shrimp, Gold, Tiny]. Of course they have real first names, frequently elaborate and poetic, given at birth, and yet they are rarely used other than on official documents. It has been estimated that there are more than 10,000 Thai first names, no doubt a world record for any culture on the planet. Friends can know each other for years, and yet not know each other’s actual first name, never having used anything but a nickname in their daily conversations. Last names are more often than not complex groupings of many syllables, and once again oftentimes known only to the family members.
Terms of address can also be family relationships [real or imagined]. Hence anyone about the same age as one’s actual parents can be called mom or dad [mae, pah]. Elder brother/sister or younger brother/sister, aunt, and uncle are also frequently used among friends, even though the person is not an actual relative.
Recently in talking to a friend I asked him the name of his mother-in-law. He got a quizzical look on his face and replied, “I really don’t remember.” I knew that he had been married for at least ten years and felt it a bit odd. Further questioning divulged that his mother-in-law is always changing her name and he couldn’t remember the most recent one. My son Jua came home one day last year waving an official document and announced that his name was now ‘Tanachai’. Seems that an astrologer had told him that ‘Tanachai’ would be a much better name for him at this period in his life. Changing names appears to be one of the Thai culture’s most enjoyable little games, and for only 40 baht [one dollar], and a trip to a local government office, and you can make it official.