Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Name Game

The cellphone app referred to below

I'm in Bangkok, so it would make sense for me to write about Thailand this week, the way I thought I would every week when I joined MIE.

But there's a problem.  I've done virtually nothing here except hit my head against the next Poke.  So I've spent all my time in my own fictional Bangkok and almost none in the real thing.

Thanks, then, to Howard Marder, who sent me a piece from the Wall Street Journal that supplies the raw material for this piece. Because of Howard, I'm in Bangkok, writing about a trend in Bangkok I learned about via New York.  Who says we don't live in a new world?

Thais, like Chinese and members of some other Asian cultures, believe that names confer luck—good and bad.  I'm personally an example of this; when my first novel was about to come out, my Chinese wife consulted a numerologist about my name, and “Timothy Hallinan” came up much luckier than “Tim Hallinan,” which is the name under which I live daily life in the real world, whatever that is.  I double-checked the advantage of that name in an incense-heavy session with a Thai monk in a temple at the edge of the Gulf of Thailand.  "Timothy" came up aces both times.  So there you are: the reason I sell all these millions of books is that I chose a luckier name.

And so do the Thais, and at an increasing pace.  A female weight-lifter who won Silver in the 2008 Olympics changed her relatively brief and uncomplicated name (for a Thai), Junpim Kuntatean, into the much more prepossessing and more difficult for sportscasters  Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon, and won Gold in 2012.  I remember Bob Costas (or someone) saying, "And, umm, the Thai woman has taken the Gold," and who can blame him?

There's an element of playfulness in the Thai character, and that extends to the act of changing one's name.  After all, something like half a million Thai men who believe they should have been born women live openly as Katoey, or ladyboys, many of them working in everyday occupations—bank teller, shop girl, whatever—with new, sex-appropriate names, and they usually accomplish the entirety of this rather sweeping transformation with less official attention and less red tape than an American would go through to open a bank account under a fictitious business name.  If society sees one's sex as fluid, why get all rigid about something as trivial as a name?

But things are getting out of hand.  In the old days, one consulted an expert who considered your real name, your birthdate, and your goals in life before coming up with something like Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon.  These days, as name-changing enthusiasm grows, people can just go to a Website, pay the baht equivalent of ten bucks, and get the name that will lead to good fortune.  Stuck in traffic?  Use the new cellphone app.

One of the wonderful things about Thailand is that the Thai government doesn't react to absolutely everything by passing a new law.  But with the population turning into someone else at such a brisk rate, stricter regulation is inevitable (and has already begun).  Obviously from a legal perspective, the name you choose for romantic and financial success can also be seen as an alias.

So if you want a lucky Thai name, grab one while you can.

I'm not certain the Thai enthusiasm with name-changing would benefit the U.S.  After all, with the election as close as it seems to be, it's probably a good thing that Mitt Romney is stuck with the worst nickname of any president since Grover Cleveland, who was known (but only very privately) as “Toodles.”  With a luckier, not to say a less absurd, name, we might be looking at President Jaroenrattanatarakoon right now,

Tim -- Sundays


  1. I wonder what Ms. Sigurdardottir has to say about the what's in a name business.

  2. Trust me, Timothy (smile), your books sell because they're GREAT stories, not because of whatever idiot's ...ummm... er.... whatever idiotic name is on the cover! (And that has nothing to do with luck, just pure raw talent and years of hard work and persistence, of course.) Your name (on the books) could have been Barf Naked and they would have sold just as well (maybe even better? :-)

  3. I agree that your books are great and would sell well, but I also think your full name connotes a certain seriousness, and authority. To me anyway. I'm afraid that nothing could make that candidate smell sweet. Again my opinion. I'm still envying you all that Thai food :)

  4. Hi, guys. I'm deeply appreciative to Lil and Everett for totally missing the sarcasm in the line about my sales. Actually, the books might sell better if my name were Barf Naked. My sales are, as my agent might say on a sunny day, marginal, but generally speaking the critical reaction has been good. But thanks for taking the line seriously.

    Jeff, I'd love to see what Thai name a fortune teller would suggest for Yrsa. I mean, I edited an entire book that had a story by her in it, and she still caught me getting her last name wrong. Even when it's a household name here in the States, I think it'll largely be confined to polysyllabic households.

  5. I changed my name without the soothsayers. I didn't know until now I could have had help choosing a lucky one. I'm a little scared I did it wrong and will never realize my full potential. I wish there were Thai monks I could check this out with here in NYC. PS: the US government doesn't seem to know or care that I changed my name as long as I put the old one on my tax return. What name do you think Willard Romney puts on his? If only he would let us see it, we might find out for sure.