Author(s): Paularita Seng

Date Authored: November 1, 1999

Date Last Reviewed: December 28, 2000

Arms holding sitting Cambodian baby
Photo by Thierry Leclerc (cc license).

One feature of Cambodian names that often confuse westerners is the origin of family names and the order they are used. This can present confusion in schools and in clinics as filing systems and roll calls are developed. The Cambodian name is always spoken and written in the order of last name then first name. For example: if my last name were Soth, and my first name were Sopheap. My full name would be written as Soth Sopheap. Notice, there is no comma used to separate the last name from the first name. My family and friends will call me Sopheap, or by a nick name. In Cambodia my records would be categorized with Soth as my last name. This can cause substantial confusion in the American record keeping system because someone may think my last name is Sopheap because it is called last and use this as the filing name. I could easily end up with two files, one Soth, Sopheap, and another Sopheap, Soth.

Identifying households or family groups can be equally confusing. The Cambodian children usually carry the last name of the father with some exceptions. Siblings may have different last names due to the favoritism of the parents. For example, the father of a Cambodian family name Sok, Narvaratt, has two daughters. The first daughter’s name is Sok, Sophany; and the second daughter’s name is Narvaratt, Keokalyan. The second daughter carries the father’s first name as her last name because she is her father’s favorite. Giving his first name to his favorite daughter, the father believe and feel he is closer to her.

There is another circumstance under which a father may give his first name as the last name of one of the children. Cambodians are superstitious. If something bad happened to a family member ( i.e. dad, sister, or brother) during the delivery of the child, that child is perceived to have brought bad luck to the family. For example, the mom is in labor, the sister has to go to get the midwife. Along the way, she got bitten by the snake. That is the fault of the child in utero. That child will be humiliated, and blamed for any bad things that happen in the family. In this instance, the father may rescue this bad-luck child by giving his first name as the last name of this child as a comfort and a moral support to the child. The father usually gives most of his support, attention, and understanding to this bad-luck child.

The first and most general way of naming a child is for the convenience of the parents. They may name the child by the day, the month, or the season of birth to help them remember that their child was born on that day, in that month, and in that season. For example: if a child was born on Monday, the parents may name them Monday. Another convenient way of naming a child is to give a name that rhymes with the Mom’s name, Dad’s, or both, or the sibling’s. Sometimes for married couples without any children yet, the older neighbors prename the child in the belief of helping the couple to have a child.

The second way of naming a child for those who are more poetic is to name the child after the flowers, the star, the sun, or the moon. For example, Dara means star which is usually a boy’s name. And Chantrea means moon which is usually a girl’s name. There are many, many names of flowers that are beautiful and romantic, and many parents name their child after their favorite flower. They wisely choose the name of the flower for its color, characteristics, and meaning so that it matches a particular characteristic of the child. Some parents name their child after a flower that has scent similar to their child’s baby scent. By doing so, they think and believe that they are paving the way and hoping to have a child with ethics and beautiful as a person of virtue. The most important criteria in Cambodian culture is ethics, and beauty is not an essence

The last and most respectful way of naming is by older members of the family or the Buddhist monk. An older member of the family is highly respected and is considered to be very wise because of his/her life experiences. The naming usually happens three days or a week after the birth of the baby which is during the baby shower, and only if the baby does not have a name yet. We have a baby shower after the baby is born and not before like Western culture because of superstitious belief. If the monk names a child, he considered the date, time, season, year, lineage, element and characteristics of the child. If the child was born on a bad date, time, and year, then the monk would give the child a name that would give merit and fortune.

Sometimes the monk changes the name of a child if he notices that the child is not healthy (sick most of the time). The monk calculates the day of the week that the child was born, the time, the year, and the season. He would then give the child a name that he believes will bring fortune and keep the child healthy. The Cambodian people seek help from the temple for many purposes, one of which is health care. We don’t have public hospitals. The only place that we have is the Buddhist temple, a sacred, holy and the center for humanities.

Giving life to a child is the first and most important decision made by parents, yet naming a child is also a very important step that the parents can give to their child. Cambodian culture is very rich. Cambodian people are very gentle, generous, and poetic. In any form of communication, tone of voice and choice of words are wisely chosen. Likewise, naming a child among Cambodians reflects tone, form, and character. And there are many different ways of naming a child. After all, the name is a characteristic and a life-long identity. We as parents do whatever we can, loving and hoping for the best. This does not mean that the child will become what or who their parents wanted them to be. An old Cambodian proverb says, “If it is a bad seed, it does not matter how much you water or fertilize it, it will not grow”.