People in Thailand have a large amount of names. This may not be true for Thais in general, but it is certainly true for the people that I am around. I’m not sure why this is true, but I have some ideas and I would like to talk about them. Every once in a while I ponder this subject, because most of us are quite content to use only one name. I’m not even very creative when it comes to screen names–most of the time I either use my real name or some derivation of it.
Today I saw, while directing some clean-up work around campus (which is looking a lot nicer after the storms we had earlier this week), a student with the name KuKu on the gloves. As it happens, KuKu sounds the same as our crazy bird in English, something the student and her friend were very amused about. As it happens, though, there’s another person on campus, whose name is nowhere close to sounding like KuKu, who uses that name as well, and I asked about that, whether it was a mistake or not. Apparently it was, at least in their eyes.
Puns are one of my favorite aspects of humor. Since I like wordplay and tend towards being slightly dry in my sense of humor, I find the punny nature of biblical humor rather amusing. I suppose punning is one of those sorts of humor that is particular verbal or literary in nature, and that suits me personally. At any rate, puns are particularly difficult to translate, and that makes them difficult to use when dealing with those whose English is a bit shaky. At any rate, I suppose I can still have a private laugh about them at any rate.
It would appear as if people have different names depending on what culture they are in. For example, many of the hill tribe students have real names and Thai names. Their ‘real’ names are what we would call “Christian” names. Students commonly have names that are transliterations of biblical heroes of the faith, and then Thai names on top of that which seem rather short. Karen in particular seem to have a lot of names, as many as four names for one person. Again, this is a very Hebraic sort of tendency, but not one that is easy to understand in the West, where we tend to like names to be fairly straightforward.
It would appear that like the Jews of the diaspora, many of my students from the hill tribes like punny names themselves, if not for themselves than for others. For example, the student that chose the name KuKu for herself (which apparently does not have a meaning in Karen, her native language) is also called Cat or Cat3 by those who know her best, because they pun it with her real name, which is a transliteration of the rather familiar name Catharine/Catherine, a name I know rather well (since it is my mother’s name). Names are rather funny like that. I like understanding what they mean and what they sound like, and recognizing that people make puns on names for all kinds of reasons.
Sometimes an interest in and a knowledge of puns can help one understand the Bible better. For example, in Judges 8 there is an incident where Gideon kills two Midianite chieftains who had killed his brothers. When we read their names as Zebah and Zalmunna, if we do not understand Hebrew we might not guess what significance is in those names. Zebah means ‘victim’ and Zalmunna means ‘protection refused,’ and they lived up to their names, even if their original Midianite names were probably a little different. Likewise, the name Cushan-Rishathaim, or Cushan of the double wickedness, is probably a pun on the name of that Mesopotamian ruler, though his identity (is he a Babylonian or Elamite or Assyrian or Syrian ruler?) is obscure. Nonetheless, we can know for sure that his name is a pun even if he is unknown so far in biblical history.
And that is the way it is with our puns. If by some chance our names or puns on our names survive, how will the joke endure long after we are gone? Perhaps we need not be concerned with such matters, just enjoy the joke and if it lasts, may it find people curious enough to dig and find out the answer, so that their curiosity may be satisfied. That is the best that one can hope for, I suspect. But it is good enough to have a worthwhile record in the mind and research of someone, at least.