Perhaps many of us are familiar with the famous quote from Shakespeare: “What’s in a name?”. In Vietnam it’s a different case, where names and their meanings are greatly important and are believed to determine someone’s destiny. Let’s take a brief walk with helloVietnam tour operator through thousands of years of history and unfold the stories behind the naming conventions of Vietnamese people.
Vietnamese naming conventions
In the past, a Vietnamese person would have more than one name, including their taboo name (main name, used for worshipping after their death) and their common name (used when they were little, mostly by their nuclear family and extended family).
The custom of giving “Tên tục” (common names) to newborn babies was very popular in ancient Vietnamese society. It only disappeared in the late 20th century, when people attained higher levels of education and the French colonial government made it compulsory to register all births.
Newborn babies weren’t given official names until they reached a certain age (5-10), or at all in some cases (daughters in working-class families). Until then, a common name would be given to the babies instead. The delay in naming a child was due to several reasons:
1. The old government policies
Head-money card issued by the French colonial government
The government didn’t require parents to register their child’s birth until they came of age. Men from 18 years old were obligated to pay “Thuế thân” (head-money, a tax imposed on a male adult, paid in money or its labor equivalent), and might be conscripted into the military, or forced to be a labor against their conscience. Thus, delayed registration of birth was common in order to avoid and postpone their duties for as long as they could.
2. High infant mortality rates
Despite the high birth rate, the infant mortality rate was also significantly high. The majority of Vietnamese people were living below the poverty line, which directly translated to poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, and lack of medical care. Even at the age of 3 or 4, a child’s life was still at stake, so there was no rush to name them.
Woman juggling motherhood and work
There were only very few families where all the children could grow up safe and sound. In case all of their children died at a young age, the parents would name their newborn “Xin” (beg).
3. Avoidance of taboo names
Taboo names were categorized into public taboos and family taboos, and had to be used with modification to show respect and avoid profanity. This tradition still lingers, but not as strictly. Modern Vietnamese people normally only avoid “holy” names of saints and their ancestors’ taboo names, particularly in the countryside areas.
- In the public sphere, taboos could be the names of emperors and their extended families, respected persons in the area (ruling class in general), as well as “holy” names of historical figures, mighty heroes, gods, saints, etc.
- In the realm of the family, the baby’s taboo name could only be picked after carefully checking the family annals (both parental and maternal) to avoid taboo names of their ancestors and relatives. While it’s common in Western cultures for family members to share the same name, it’s considered as a taboo in Vietnam.
4. Ancient superstitions
According to Vietnamese beliefs, there are evil spirits who like to steal babies, especially the attractive ones from 0 to 5 years old. Therefore, parents would call their children by unappealing common names to trick the evil spirits into staying away. Hence, before complimenting a baby, Vietnamese people would always add the phrase “Trộm vía”, which means to talk sneakily behind a spirit (so that they wouldn’t hear it).
This particular custom isn’t followed quite as strictly by young people, especially those living in urban areas (not in written conversations at least), as some of them are probably not familiar with it or just don’t care.
Mulberry bracelets for kids
However, even up until now, with younger generations being more knowledgeable and rational about traditional superstitions and abstinence, many of them still refuse to take chances. For example, when taking a newborn out in public, the adults would mark smut on the baby’s forehead to claim the baby, or they may bring along a knife, garlic, a branch of a mulberry tree, etc. to ward off the evil spirits.
What is a common name?
A common name is an unofficial name given to the baby when he or she is born. Common names were generally in Chữ Nôm (Southern characters), and ranged from ordinary to unattractive (obscene and nasty even) to keep the evil spirits away. Chữ Nôm is a script devised by the Vietnamese around the 13th century, combining standard Chinese characters together with an adapted set of characters to represent Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and Vietnamese native words, respectively.
- Less educated people used “Thằng” and “Con” (general classifiers for someone younger, male and female respectively) before the common name to address the baby. For example, “Thằng Cu” (a lad), “Con Ðĩ” (a harlot), “Con Bùn” (mud), “Thằng Ðực” (a male dog), etc.
Note: Do not use these classifiers for someone older or of the same age as you, or someone you’re not close to because these words can come off as highly offensive and rude.
- The aristocrats normally did not give their children a taboo name right after birth either, but they would not use unpleasant names so the inferior people would still be respectful towards their babies. They would call them “Cậu bé” (master’s son) or “Cô bé” (master’s daughter), which is an endearing and fond way of calling a baby.
Giving the baby a taboo name
Before French colonialism, Vietnam was highly influenced by the Confucius doctrine, which is extremely male chauvinist. The “Trọng nam khinh nữ” ideology that values men above women was fervently embraced by not only men but also by many women. For example, when mentioning a historical figure, the author would regard their mother or wife by their surname, instead of their given name (middle name + taboo name).
- When a boy came of age, they would be given a nice sounding and meaningful name, reflecting the hope of a better future such as Phúc (good fortune), Lộc (wealth), An (safe), Khang (longevity), etc. Some would be named after their Chinese zodiac sign such as Dần (tiger), Mão (cat), Mùi (goat), etc.
- Before, people from the lower class wouldn’t give their daughter a taboo name and would address her using her common name until marriage, when she would take her husband’s name then later her firstborn child’s name.
- Only the royalty and nobility used flamboyant words to name their daughters such as “Ngọc Hân” (cheerful jade) or “Huyền Trân” (a precious black pearl). “Thị” has been used as the middle name for girls up until the past two decades or so when Vietnamese people decided it doesn’t sound fashionable at all. So in the past, a woman’s full name generally consisted of Surname + Thị + Taboo Name, and then turned into Surname + Middle Name(s) +Taboo Name. The new way of naming is applied to both sexes.
Common Viet Surnames
Nowadays, many customs and rites are no longer practiced. Parents give their children the most aristocratic and flamboyant names, even before they are born. Anyone who coos over how cute, chubby, or beautiful a baby is will be given a free pass. Names are important regardless of gender, and women get to keep their maiden name after marriage.
Learn more about Vietnamese culture here: