What’s in a name?

The Kontent - Scott Nguyen
6 min readFeb 18, 2022

I recently took a trip with my parents over this month, and I used it to learn more about our past, our history, and our culture. One of the biggest findings was to learn about the significance of my name. What felt arbitrary now made sense after learning the meaning and significance of it. For the Vietnamese culture, your name is something you live up to and the sense of hope and purpose that you carry as you go through life.

Why I got interested

I have a friend that’s deeply invested in her Hawaiian culture. She spends many hours doing research on her lineage and history, and one of the most interesting things she shared with me is how important names are. The traditional process starts with the guardian of the family selecting the name for the child.1 From what I’m told, desired characteristics along with the location of where the child was born are included in their final name. The Hawaiians are also perceptive of spirits and ghouls so you might have a child with a name that translates to “big eye” or something non-desirable so the spirits would stay away from them.

When she asked me what my Vietnamese name meant, I didn’t know how to reply because I didn’t know. I lived my whole life not knowing nor caring about where my name came from or why I was named that way. This curiosity started my journey to learn more

The significance of a name

Starting with the last name, the most common last names are Tran, Le, and Nguyen. I often get asked if we are all related to each other and my answer would be “do you think all Johnsons, Smiths, or Jones are related to each other?”. But the more I dug, I found that back in the days, there were Vietnamese Dynasties that ruled over the people, and guess which three were the biggest and most influential — yes, Tran, Le, and Nguyen.

To swear loyalty to the emperor, the people would change their last name. For many reasons including, favorable treatment, political power, and of course, avoidance of getting killed. All are fair reasons to do so for such times. But knowing that names hold such significance in Vietnamese culture, especially your family name, by giving up your name, you give up your identity. You give up a part of yourself and more importantly, you give up your family lineage. Granted there are different ways to carry on your culture and traditions, but your family name will cease to exist when you take on the emperor’s name.

There are records of Vietnamese people not having a family name to start with2. It was due to Chinese rule that family names started to get implemented. Stephen O’Harrow, the chairman of Indo-Pacific Languages and head of the Vietnamese department the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa explains:

The Chinese have had family names for thousands of years, sometimes indicating occupation, social status, or membership of a minority group. Well before the time of China’s occupation of Vietnam, the Chinese had a sophisticated system of family names for a pretty basic reason: taxes. “Under the Chinese colonial rulership, the Chinese typically will designate a family name to keep tax records, They used a limited number of family names for the people under their jurisdiction.

This was a common thing for conquerors to place their laws and systems upon those they’ve dominated. O’harrow explains:

So the Chinese just started handing out last names to people. They assigned these surnames pretty much randomly, but the original pool of last names largely came from Chinese last names, or Vietnamese derivations of them. Nguyen, for example, came from the Chinese Ruan.3 My guess is, senior Chinese administrators used their own personal names to designate people under their own aegis. This kind of thing happened a lot; the tendency of the imperialist to just bestow his name on the people he conquered can be seen everywhere from the Philippines (which has tons of Spanish last names) to the U.S. (where black Americans often have the names of the owners of slave ancestors) to the Indian state of Goa (Portuguese).

Last names as it turns out, didn’t hold much significance after all in Vietnamese culture. O’Harrow talks about how other ways people refer to each other:

Though last names in Vietnam are, thanks to that early period under Chinese control, much older than they are in most parts of the world, the Vietnamese never seemed to much care about them. They just never became a fundamental way that Vietnamese people referred to each other or thought about themselves.

Vietnamese has no pronouns, like he or she or you or they. Instead, the usual way to refer to somebody else is with something O’Harrow calls a “fictive kinship term.” Essentially, you refer to someone by their given name, and add some kind of family-based modifier which indicates the relationship between the speaker and listener. If you’re talking to our good friend Dũng, and he’s about the same age as you, you might call him Anh Dũng, meaning “Brother Dung.” To indicate age or gender differences or respect, you might substitute something like “aunt,” “grandmother,” or “child” in for “Anh.”

Now, all of a sudden, the family name doesn’t matter as much. My parents would always tell me to make sure I don’t tarnish the family name and act in an honest way so it would reflect the family’s morals to other people. I think they were right in telling me to live an honest life, but wrong in the purpose of doing so. In their defense, whatever they’ve learned was passed down from many generations. We often don’t question stories from authority figures and embraced them as facts ourselves. This is why we should question what is taught and look to learn what is true or not.

Which now shifts our attention to middle names — often used in a couple of ways4:

  1. Indicate the order of birth
  2. Indicate different generations
  3. Branches in a family
  4. Positive meaning

The first three won’t be common practice so you’ll typically see someone’s middle name with a positive connotation behind it. In my case, our grandmother gave us the middle name of Xuan, which is spring — A season associated with good times and celebrations. It’s not customary for your grandparents to do it, but it wouldn’t surprise me whenever a senior member of the household gets a say in a child’s name. It’s been reflected in many different cultures. I also see a trend of giving a Vietnamese child as many positive attributes/meanings in their name. Perhaps we’re superstitious but the belief that these attributions can influence their life truly plays to the tune of the law of attraction — positive thoughts will lead to a positive life.

To continue with this trend of assigning positive meaning, we move towards the first name, where it can take on a positive attribute or characteristics that we want the child to take on. An example is Khiem (modesty), An (peace and safety), Lap (independent), Dung (courageous).

If we take what we know about last names, the priority is to live up to our first names right? This type of thinking contradicts many different cultures, especially the western idea of the family name. It’s rare to address someone by their last name, especially in casual conversation. This infatuation with the last name has been overlooked and overblown.

Why this matters

For someone that has barely any memories of growing up in Vietnam and is still considered a “foreigner” in America, it was important to know about my past. That’s one thing about an immigrant, especially children of immigrants, that I’ve never realized until much later — wherever you go, you’ll always feel like you don’t belong. My hope is that when more people learn about their history, we can all learn from one another and realize that we are more alike than we think.

Personal identity has become a focus of mine as I get older. The act of learning about my name is just the beginning of this personal venture. It has inspired me to learn more about my family and my ancestors. Hopefully, it will answer the many questions I have and dispel any of the false teachings I’ve learned. ultimately, I just want to be able to pass my culture and history to my children and share this story with other immigrants.

Until next week,

Scott

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1 The guardian could be the head of the family, the oldest person, the person selected to keep records of the family, etc. Just know that this person is very respected and has lots of say in the family.

2 https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/pronounce-nguyen-common-vietnam

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nguyen

4 https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/vietnamese-culture/vietnamese-culture-naming

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The Kontent - Scott Nguyen

I write to get better at writing and to learn. IG: stayingkonnected Podcast: Staying Konnected