Of Vietnamese First Names and Mine

https://digitalcitizen.ca/category/writing/This is a writing contest entry I had submitted that did not place. Instead of tweaking and/or submitting to other contests, I have decided not to do this to motivate myself to write more and other content for future contests. I’m not trying to make a living on this, or even earn extra cash, so there’s no need to judge value based on how much time I put into it. If anything, it’s only about minimizing losses of contest entry fees to what’s been “proven” to be “unworthy” of recognition. :)

I hope you like it. 2000 word limit 2021 CBC Nonfiction contest.


Of Vietnamese First Names and Mine

Verbal Anglicization of first names from non-English cultures often range from awkward to nasty, with verbal Anglicization of Vietnamese first names possibly being worst for unpleasant English words some take on, in addition to poor pronunciation. Examples include Tuyet, Dai, Hang, Hung, Dong, Dung, Cuc, Coc, Dang, Dam, Phat, Phuc, and Bich, among others. Such a tragic fate for first names revered as being poetically lyrical in the native tongue, with beautiful definitions and inflections lost in emigration, now left raw and exposed for perpetual desecration in the harsher language of their destinations.

Vietnamese without such Lyrical names from the home culture now in English speaking countries are largely spared this fate. Their first names are numbers associated with their birth order, which, by chance, are meaningless in verbal Anglicization. Never beautiful, their Numeric first names are no less beautiful stripped of their definitions and inflections, only less pragmatic and occasionally awkward sounding, minimizing pain for their owners.


In Vietnamese culture, to name a child without reference to their birth order, you must be knowledgeable about Vietnamese poetry, or at least intuit, because Lyrical first names are poetic pairs of poetic words. In addition to literal and metaphorical meanings, there are unwritten restrictions like trait descriptions for boys, beauty descriptions for girls, and pronunciation stress on the second name, which is also the second syllable of the Lyrical name since all Vietnamese words are monosyllabic. These Lyrical first names are literary gestalts, a two syllable phrase that rolls well off the tongue and provides a deeper meaning than those of each word summed. For example, Trung Cang translates as “the spiritual centre, the way (to)”, Ngoc Anh translates as “sparkling, precious stone”, and X X (my name) translates as “insight(ful), prognosticator”. In each word, you have something notable. In combination, you have something memorable! As such, Lyrical first names are never separated in writing, and only begrudgingly in casual talk.

As challenging as Lyrical first names are to form, how you come up with one does not matter. What does, is that nobody you know, or know of, has the name at bestowment. To take another living being’s Lyrical first name is believed to be stealing their soul! Yet, punishment would befall your child to maximize pain. For your child’s entire life and eternal afterlife, bad luck and health will be with them like that stolen name, cursed for trapping a tormented soul. You, meanwhile, would suffer indirectly as a caring Parent helpless to stop it! Mythical sounding, perhaps, until you hear the supporting stories sufficiently legendary to serve as confirmation bias to keep the myth factual in the cultural consciousness, including one from my Mother.

In a moment of forgetfulness at her birth, my Mother was bestowed the Lyrical first name of a very distant relative. From her birth, she struggled with poor health and bad luck, peaking with a near death experience when she was eight years old. At that tipping point, her Mother changed her Lyrical first name to the standard Numeric first name for a girl in her birth order. Immediately afterward, she was relatively immune to new impacts of war and tragedies around her, and became mythical evidence.


As bad as stealing others’ Lyrical first names is considered, it is not considered much worse than failure to bestow a sufficiently lyrical first name. Failure offends the Gods, and incurs mockery of the masses, whose damnation is only less divine, but enough to keep many Vietnamese Parents from trying. Instead, those Parents rely on the commoner’s Numeric naming system, where children are named by the number one greater than their birth order. So the first born’s name translates as “Two”, the second born’s name translates as “Three”, and so on. This is from hypocritical consideration of the Parents being “equal” Ones in the family, in a patriarchal society where everybody knows it is the woman who runs the household. Just ask any Vietnamese to swear at you in Vietnamese for proof. They will include your Mother, because, like most languages, our most damning expletives reveal what we cherish most as a culture.

Hai, Ba, Tu, Nam, Sau, Bay, Tam, Chin, and Muoi are the Numeric first names for children born first to ninth, named “Two” to “Ten”, respectively. Being called by a number, and often treated as one due to cultural age hierarchies, is normalized in Viet Nam. There is no Numeric first name beyond Muoi because bigger numbers are composed of two numbers like “ten one”, making them multisyllabic and unsuitable for other Numeric naming requirements. As a result, children after the ninth born had to have Lyrical first names.

To make elegant full names with Numeric first names, only two uncapitalized and unstressed names are allowed to bridge the Family name that comes first, and the Numeric first name that comes last. Boys use van, meaning “cultured”, while girls use thi, meaning “maiden name”, which she would keep in marriage so the translation is valid lifelong. As such, a male’s full name could be Nguyen van Ba, culturally translating as “second born cultured Nguyen”, while his female equivalent’s would be Nguyen thi Ba, culturally translating as “second born with maiden name Nguyen”. This lack of variety for bridging names, and their lack of stress in pronunciation to leave the last syllable stressed, like with Lyrical first names, ensures that all Vietnamese full names are equally poetic at least in sound.

Combining the 18 Numeric first names and two bridging names for a diaspora of 100 million where 38% has the last name Nguyen, and 50% has one of only 13 other last names, there are a lot of Vietnamese with identical full names! In comparison, Smith, the most common English last name, make up only about 1% of surnames in English speaking countries. Common English first names also pale in percentage usage compared to Numeric first names like Hai, Ba, and Tu, early in the birth order. Simply put, the English speaking world has no comparison to the Vietnamese for having lots of people with identical names.

For what the Numeric first names lack in beauty from ubiquity, they compensate with utility. For what they lack in poetic meaning, they compensate with pragmatic meaning. In a nation where everyone is always extremely pragmatic to survive war, colonization, and poverty for centuries, the Numeric first names’ pragmatism is why they are not considered second rate to Lyrical first names. In fact, Numeric first names are so pragmatic even those with Lyrical first names often use them informally!

In seeing or hearing a Numeric first name, you immediately know the owner’s cisgender, their birth order, and how many older siblings they have. Should you meet these siblings or know of their first names, which would also likely be Numeric formally or informally, you would also know whether each is older or younger than the owner, how many siblings exist between the two of them, and the honorific title by which you should address each sibling. Finally, because the monosyllabic Numeric first names are used on their own, unlike the Lyrical first name pairs, they are much more effective for calling someone, or yelling at them. For all these pragmatic reasons, it is no wonder people with Lyrical first names often use their informal Numeric first names.

Less pragmatic than Numeric first names are nicknames, which Vietnamese people have like people most other cultures. With nicknames being unofficial, they are not subject to Anglicization. Yet, they should be acknowledged as a part of the naming culture.


Up to the age of eight, I lived in Viet Nam and mostly went by my nickname Ti, pronounced “tee”, from half of the Vietnamese term ti ti that meant “tiny”, referencing my toddler size. I never used my Lyrical first name much outside of school, or my informal Numeric first name of Hai. However, that all changed with my family’s escape from Viet Nam.

Upon being assigned to refugee camp, my full name underwent a formal change with written Anglicization. The diacritical marks were removed, and my Lyrical first name was hyphenated, not separated into first and middle name like most Vietnamese’s names were, by my English-fluent Father who knew of the hyphen not present in Vietnamese. He also left me with no middle name despite the “required” field on the landing paperwork. To have bestowed me another name would have turned my name, in whole or part, from lingual poetry to dysentery! Predictably, my lack of a middle name has started a few interesting conversations over the years, especially where formal identification is checked. If I have time, I tell those checking about my Lyrical first name’s written Anglicization. If not, I give them a condensed statement of how my first name in Vietnamese was so poetic, my Parents did not think I needed a middle name. I also give them the inevitable answer of “insightful prognosticator”.

For how written Anglicization formally damaged my name at refugee camp, what verbal Anglicization did to it informally was worse. The second part in my Lyrical first name lost its inflection, gained a syllable from the paired vowels being read as two syllables instead of one, and had that final syllable stressed to sound unlike any other name I had ever heard. Few kids around me had first names longer than two syllables, with those that did being called by the first syllable truncation, and none had the final syllable stressed. To me, my verbally Anglicized Lyrical first name sounded like Anglicized Vietnamese lingual dysentery! It also felt a mouthful to say that I despised introducing myself. Yet, insisting on a verbal Anglicization closer to its Vietnamese pronunciation meant having my Lyrical first name end in “tit”, as unlyrical word as any other, that got as many snickers as any other in the upper echelons of elementary school. As a result, I did the worst thing to it, albeit for the better. From my first summer in Canada onward, I reintroduced myself by just the innocuous sounding, “insightful” part of my Lyrical first name, completely blind to the cultural sin I was committing in its truncation. Written Anglicization had disfigured my Lyrical first name. Verbal Anglicization had mangled it. My Anglicization, though, was what ultimately destroyed it.


Whatever my Parents felt about me truncating my Lyrical first name practically, they said nothing. They knew the plights of many Vietnamese with Lyrical first names verbally Anglicizing poorly to be easy subjects of harsh racism. If my choice to truncate my Lyrical first name, on my own terms, would spare me some of that misery, they were willing to accept it. My Lyrical first name had already been disfigured and mangled, and my identity was going to be different from what it might have been had I grown up in Viet Nam as well. There was not much to salvage in keeping my Lyrical first name as it was, and I am thankful they saw that to let me let it go without objection.

As for me, I have no regret about having truncated my Lyrical first name. It was inevitable, as I still feel the same way about its verbal Anglicization. Fortunately, all that damage done to my Lyrical first name turned out to be only superficial. I have always lived the full meaning of my full Lyrical first name so fully that there no aptronym could be more apt for me! For my entire life, I have always been about the future: imagining it, deducing it, discussing it, planning it, influencing it, living it before its time, only to occasionally forget to live in it when it arrives with one eye on the future from that moment. With actions speaking louder than words, what I call myself, then, matters little with my future-oriented outlook and lifestyle. I have always been, and forever shall be, the Insightful Prognosticator… and I don’t foresee that ever changing.


2097 words (post total)


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