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"Vietnamese Names Mean a Lot," by George F. Schultz (in Viet My, June, 1969)

The Hundred Families

It has been said that there are only ninety-nine family names in Vietnam. Why ninety-nine is a question. The legend is that the first occupants of the territory of Vietnam were divided into 100 families. This figure is, of course, too low for today, but actually there are perhaps no more than 300 names for a population of 38,000,000. This is not so surprising. After all, in China, there are only 450 family names. Of the 300 Vietnamese family names, some 200 originated in the valley and delta of the Red River, cradle of early Vietnamese culture and civilization, and today one of the world's most densely populated areas.

The family name of Nguyen is by far the most common, being used by slightly over 50 per cent of the population. There seems to be a historical reason: With the overthrow of the later Ly dynasty in 1225 by the lords of Trinh, who then established the Tran dynasty, all members of the deposed dynasty, as well as all other families using the name of Ly, were ordered to change it to Nguyen. In this manner, those in power hoped to destroy all possibility of a restoration of the Ly dynasty.

Eighty-five per cent of the population uses one of the twelve following names: Duong, Dao, Dang, Dinh, Do, Hoang or Huynh, Le, Ngo, Nguyen, Pham, Tran, Vu, or Vo.

There are a few double family names: They are joined by a hyphen and both are capitalized: Au-Duong, Ha-Duong, Nguyen-Ha, and so on. The second of these names is often a maternal family name. The second member of a compound family name must not be confused with the intercalary name, which is properly not hyphenated.

As in the case of European family names, Vietnamese names are largely derived from common nouns - the original meaning of which has been lost or changed with the passage of time. Almost without exception, they are derived from Chinese characters. For example, the family names of Nguyen, Le, and Ngo were the names of ancient Chinese principalities. (Ngo, by extension, then came to mean China itself, but it is now so used only in a derogatory sense).

The Intercalary Name

The intercalary name or particle is a form that does not exist in the composition of Western names; it is perhaps the most confusing element of the Vietnamese name. It was necessary because through the too frequent use of the same family name it became increasingly difficult to identify an individual. In this there is some similarity with the middle name or initial used in the United States.

The most common intercalary names are those indicating sex - Van, male, and Thi, female. Van, meaning literature, once expressed the hope that the bearer would succeed in the literary contests and become a scholar and mandarin. Thi similarly expressed the hope that its bearer would be the mother of many children. These literal meanings have been lost with the passage of time.

In later life, should the individual consider that the middle name bestowed by his parents is not suitable, that is, that it does not form an ideological ensemble with his family and personal names, he may change it. For example, Huynh Van Ngoc has no particular meaning; but when the intercalary Nhu (to resemble) is substituted for Van, we obtain "Huynh Nhu Ngoc, Huynh who resembles Jade"; in the same way, Phan Van Chau has no great beauty, but on changing the intercalary to Minh (clear) we have Phan Minh Chau, "Phan the Clear Gem." Nguyen Van Quang is uninspiring, but Nguyen Ngoc Quang becomes "Nguyen of Jade Resplendent." In brief, the use of the intercalary here renders the complete name rich, poetic, literary, chivalric, or patriotic. Young girls are particularly anxious to acquire a more suitable middle name.

In families of noble origin, the intercalary is almost never changed, for in so doing the identity of the family would be lost. The mandarinal Ho family of Hue retains the intercalary Dac in perpetuity, to distinguish it from all other (and especially lesser) families bearing the name of Ho. In the same way, a certain mandarinal Nguyen family keeps its identity by retaining Khoa (class, session) as intercalary.

In North and central Vietnam, the intercalary name is sometimes omitted. The complete name then consists of family name plus personal name: Pham Quynh, Le Xuan, Nguyen Binh, Pham Bich, and so on.

The intercalary particle is properly not capitalized, but it has succumbed to foreign influence and is now sometimes written that way.

The Personal Name

The third component of the complete name is the personal name, corresponding somewhat to our Christian, or given, name. Peasant families and the illiterate do not attach much importance to the choice of given names. On the other hand, in educated families, they are always the object of severe and judicious selection and are chosen to form an ideological ensemble with the family and intercalary names, and sometimes with the personal names of other members of the family.

In general, feminine personal names are taken from flowers, trees, birds, the seasons, or precious objects. Masculine names are usually taken from abstract values; however, there is no fine line, and many names are applicable to either sex. The only restriction on the choice of personal name is that the name of the father, grandfather, or other near relative must not be used.

Today, a person is referred to under almost all circumstances by his personal name, even with a title: Ong Hoa, Mr. Hoa; Ba Kim, Mrs. Kim; Co Thu, Miss Thu. If there is any confusion, the full name may be used. For obvious reasons, the family name is seldom used alone. When Vietnamese names are arranged alphabetically it is often in reference to the personal rather than the family name, although the Saigon telephone directory uses the latter.

In North Vietnam, the first-born child is often called Ca (eldest), the second, Hai (two), the third, Ba (three), the fourth, Tu (four), the fifth, Nam (five), and so on, without regard to sex; in South Vietnam, however, the first-born is called, Hai (two), the second, Ba (three), the third, Tu, and so on.

The use of numerals is resorted to for several reasons: first, for convenience: Vietnamese families are generally large, and simple numeration provides a ready means of identity; secondly, in superstitious families, one avoids pronouncing the child's correct name, in order to confuse the evil genie who are ever seeking to harm young and defenseless children. Since the eldest is always the first target of these spirits, the latter are thrown off the track by omitting any reference to the first-born as Number One, he or she being called Hai, Number Two, instead, especially in the South.

Poetic Names for Girls

Many Vietnamese women are very fond of a compound personal name or couplet, although it is rarely found in the case of men. The idea is purely one of embellishment, in an effort to create a pleasant ideological combination.

Some examples:
Xuan Hoa Spring Flower
Thanh Thuy Clear Water
Kim Son Golden Mountain
Dieu Hoi Fragrant Odor
Tuyet Mai Snow-White Apricot Blossom

These couplets often give rise to a special situation within a given family. For example, Mr. Dao Dang Vy has three daughters, to whom he gave compound personal names, as follows: The first part of each name, Giao, recalls one of the earliest names applied to the delta of North Vietnam; the second is a common personal name. Thus, we obtain:
Dao Giao Thuy Giao of the Propitious Augury
Dao Giao Chau Giao the Pearl
Dao Giao Tien Giao the Fairy